Exploring the “Canciones” of Spain: Interview With Adam Cicchillitti

Adam Cicchillitti - "Canciones"

With his debut album, “Canciones,” classical guitarist Adam Cicchillitti explores some delightful territory in nineteenth- and twentieth-century Spanish repertoire.  This terrific project (which officially releases tomorrow) features works by Albéniz, Turina, de Falla, Torroba, Garcia Lorca, and Rodrigo.  Some of the pieces (such as the opening of Albéniz’ “Suite española”) may be familiar to listeners even if they don’t know them by name, while others might be new to those who don’t know the classical guitar repertoire.  Since I’m a pianist by training, many were unfamiliar to me before listening to the album.

Adam Cicchillitti is a “superb Canadian guitarist” (Classical Guitar Magazine, 2017), currently based in Ottawa. Originally from Montréal, Adam’s competition successes have placed him on concert stages across Canada and the United States. In addition to being an active performer, teacher, arranger, and composer, Adam is also working on his doctorate in music performance at McGill University.  As he notes below, he’ll deliver his first doctoral recital this May.

Precisely because I’m a pianist, I’m often awed by guitarists who can produce a distinct melody over accompaniment lines with only six strings (as opposed to 88 keys!).  Cicchillitti delivers an absolutely lovely tone from his guitar with his technique in these pieces – they sing from start to finish.  This is crucial because, as the liner notes state, the thread that binds the pieces chosen for the album together is the composers’ reliance upon the folk music tradition that inspired their work – a tradition that depends on melody and tune.

I’ve occasionally seen music lovers comment that they find classical guitar a bit – well, dull.  That’s not so in my mind in any case, but this project is far from boring – on the contrary, this is a delightful and virtuosic performance, and I can’t wait to hear what Adam does next.  Many of the readers of this blog, I know, already appreciate great guitar playing from the roots and folk musicians we’ve often featured here; I hope you’ll give “Canciones” a shot even if you think you don’t care for classical music.  This might just be the album that changes your mind about that.

We’re thrilled that Adam was willing to take some time to answer a few questions about his new album.

Even for those who aren’t classical music aficionados, some of the pieces chosen for this project will be quite familiar – some themes from Albeniz’ “Suite espagñola,” for example. As a musician, how do you take familiar pieces and make them your own?

I think a natural starting place is to take a look at the composer’s original manuscript if possible, and if that isn’t possible, to find something that is closer to the original source than another guitarist’s arrangement. Albéniz never wrote any guitar music, so any artist should endeavor to go to the piano score and explore the different editions for inspiration. In my case, looking at the piano scores allowed me to uncover several expressive details that were unfortunately omitted in famous arrangements by Segovia, Barrueco and Crosskey. Sometimes the arrangers come up with incredible solutions to problems, like the sixteenth-note section in Cataluna that Barrueco cleverly inverted to make playable on the guitar, so of course we need to explore the arrangements as well. Subsequently, this process of exploration allows us to familiarize ourselves with the pieces in a deep and personal level, permitting us to take ownership of the music and to ultimately shed new light on a well-known work.

You chose to record the album in Toronto’s Church of St. Mary Magdalene (which I know primarily as the church where Canadian composer Healey Willan spent a number of years). Why this particular church/location?  How would you describe its acoustics?

This is my chance to promote my good friend Drew Henderson. Drew is a world-class Canadian guitarist who also happens to be a world-class sound engineer. He uses state-of-the-art recording equipment and his intimate knowledge of the guitar to extract the ideal sound for the recording, and he records almost exclusively at St. Mary Magdalene because of the magnificent acoustic inside the main hall. I think that the sound we got in the church speaks for itself. The acoustics inside that church are incredible for guitar because the natural reverb inside the space gives the interpreter so much room to breathe, and I feel the product sounds much more natural and nuanced as a result. Drew didn’t have to add any effects to the recording, every note on the album sounds exactly like it did in that church.

Why did you select Spanish guitar repertoire specifically for your album? (I know that Spanish composers contributed significantly to the guitar repertoire overall, but I’m curious about why you might gravitate to this music in particular.)

The music that appears on my album follows the theme of nationalist composers that united at the beginning of the 20th-century to create Spanish art that was rooted in folkloric idioms and the study of classical masterpieces. This started with Isaac Albéniz, Enrique Granados and their mentor Felipe Pedrell, all of whom passed the torch to Manuel de Falla, Joaquin Turina and others in the next generation. I personally find that time of history before the Spanish civil war super interesting because it profoundly shaped the history of the guitar. De Falla was the first non-guitarist composer of international reputation to write a solo guitar piece in 1920 and so you’re absolutely correct to say that Spanish composers contributed significantly to our repertoire. It’s more than that though – I love the flavor of the music itself and I’ve played a lot of the works on this album for years. I’ve grown as a musician with these pieces but I’m constantly uncovering new things about them every time I sit down and practice. These musical experiences provide me with many opportunities to explore the subtleties in the sound and colour of my instrument.

Adam Cicchillitti

You’re currently finishing your doctorate in music – how critical has your study at this level been to your work as a musician?

Actually I just began my doctorate in music performance at McGill last September. However, I’ve been studying with Jérôme Ducharme since I graduated from my bachelor’s degree at McGill in 2009 and I came back to the school because he teaches there now. I owe Jérôme a lot. He’s helped me expand my tool-box of guitar techniques immeasurably because he’s one of the greatest technicians in the world, but he also conveys an incredible amount of excitement for music that I find contagious. Jérôme and I went through every note, phrase and nuance on this album with a fine-tooth comb, so he deserves a lot of credit. Moreover, my friend Steve Cowan is completing his doctorate at McGill at the same time, and our collaboration and weekly rehearsals have helped bring a new dimension to my playing. Steve is the most relaxed player I’ve ever had the pleasure of working with, so just being next to him rubs off enormously. You can hear him performing Rodrigo’s Tonadilla with me at the end of the album, and he brings so many great ideas to rehearsal that I feel lucky to be able to play with him.

I’m in no way a music expert but to my ear, there’s a really distinct stylistic difference between the composers you’ve chosen. For example, Albeniz has a more classical/Romantic sound, while the opening of Turina’s work is actually jarring with just a bit of dissonance (similar to what I’d hear in a Debussy or Ravel piano piece); de Falla’s work has a distinct flamenco flair (and I read that he was quite influenced by flamenco).  How would you describe the difference in styles among the six composers represented here?

This is a perceptive observation! Actually Albéniz is considered to belong to an earlier generation than de Falla and Turina. Interestingly, Albeniz, Manuel de Falla and Joaquin Turina all lived in Paris at a time, where composers such as Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel encouraged them to focus on the native music of their homeland. There’s a great story where Albeniz hears a quintet written by Turina in Paris in 1907. At the time, Turina was studying composition with Vincent d’Indy and wrote this quintet in the style of French composer César Franck. This concert featured some of the works of Albeniz, and when he heard the quintet by Turina, he asked de Falla if the composer was English, to which de Falla responded “No sir, he is sevillano [meaning from Sevilla].” After that, Albeniz met with Turina and de Falla at a café and discussed the importance of writing music that was rooted in “the popular song of Spain or Andalucia” and to never again try to write in this “Franckian style”.

Turina realized that for the rest of his career he had to “fight bravely for the national music of [Spain]” and he did so by exploring the folk music of flamenco and cante jondo (one of the predecessors of flamenco), which you can hear all throughout his sonata on my album. The flamenco technique of rasgueado, the intense strumming effect you hear throughout Canciones, is a popular device employed on the guitar in Spanish music. Had Albéniz actually composed for the guitar, he most likely would’ve incorporated rasgueado into his music. At the other extreme, Turina was greatly influenced by flamenco and rasgueado permeates all of his solo guitar music. De Falla and Garcia Lorca held festivals where they focused on promoting the art of “flamenco puro” and cante jondo. Federico Moreno Torroba was a prolific composer of the zarzuela, a type of light Spanish opera and finally Rodrigo is the composer of the most famous guitar work of the twentieth century, the Concierto de Aranjuez. Rodrigo’s music is full of contrast between characteristic dissonances and playful themes.

Some of the pieces on your disc include vocal parts, sung here by Philippe Courchesne-Leboeuf. I think you’ve worked together a fair amount, performing both Spanish and German vocal works; how does playing with a singer (I won’t refer to it as accompanying) differ from playing solo, beyond the obvious of having to take another musician’s timing, breathing, phrasing, etc., into account?

You mention that it’s obvious to take into account the breathing of the vocalist, but I think when you perform with a singer it’s one of the most important considerations. In any musical relationship, when musicians work together for long periods of time they develop an interpretive synergy. That being said, I need to adapt my playing of the guitar part in vocal music once I begin working with the singer because they need to breathe in order for their instrument to work, which means I often need to give them more space and take the text and vocal lines into account.

One thing that is really important to consider when playing guitar with a singer is the balance. The classical guitar is naturally a quiet instrument whereas the voice can be quite explosive. This means when I play unamplified with a singer, I often have to play louder than I normally would when performing solo. Jérôme and I have spent a good part of this year working on fattening up my sound without diminishing the quality of my tone, and I’m quite happy with the balance that we achieved on the album.

I know you have an album launch event coming up in March with Steve Cowan; what other performances are coming up that you’d like to highlight?

I have several concerts this spring in Montreal and Ottawa. I will be launching the album on March 3rd at the Chapelle historique du Bon Pasteur in Montreal and March 10th at St. Bartholomew’s church in Ottawa. You can catch Steve and I in concert at an important benefit concert for Syrian refugees with Doctors Without Borders in Montreal on April 27th. I will be giving my first doctoral recital at McGill on May 7th (5:00 pm) with the gifted soprano Carolyn Beaudoin, performing Britten’s song cycle for guitar and featuring the premier of Canadian composer Jose Evangelista’s Retazos for two guitars with Steve.

~ L

Photo credit: Simon Laroche

Visit Adam Cicchillitti’s website.

Preview and buy “Canciones” online.

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