Hello dear Zavodovskians!
The Monks have been sailing the musical seas for quite a while now. Album reviews have been our main focus, but to reach those who really live music is something we ought to achieve. Hence, Monk Berkemeier went out the Island to meet, even if virtually, Michalis Kontaxakis, one of the best classical guitarists around. Take a look at Michalis’ version of Manuel Ponce’s Concierto del Sur.
As Naxos described
Michalis is considered today to be one of the leading young Greek guitarists. He studied the guitar with Vassilis Mastorakis, graduated from Costas Cotsiolis’s class, and also studied at the Robert Schumann Musikhochschule in Düsseldorf with Joaquín Clerch. After winning many other international prizes, in 2005 he became the first Greek musician to take first prize in the prestigious International Francisco Tárrega Guitar Competition. He now appears in solo recitals, in a duo with the noted Croatian guitarist Dejan Ivanovic, and in a variety of chamber music ensembles across Europe in major concert halls and at the most important guitar festivals. His activities also include performances with many European orchestras and regular collaboration with the Jean Piaget Institute in Lisbon, where he often gives master-classes. He lives and teaches the guitar in Athens.
In this quick interview, the Monks try to learn as much as possible from Michalis: his inspiration, his ideas on music and, especially, how classical guitar has shaped his life.
Thank you Michalis, for sharing your knowledge and experience with us!
For how long have you been playing? How did it start?
I am playing the guitar since I was 7 (1984). I was jealous when my aunt started learning the guitar and I asked my parents to put me in the music school to learn the guitar. Actually I don’t come from a musicians family but since I started the guitar I felt very attracted to music, I knew that music would be always something important in my life.
When and how did you decide to become a professional classical guitarist?
Becoming a professional musician was not a dream or a goal when I was a kid. In fact I didn’t expect that something like that would happen, and honestly I don’t remember myself deciding to be a professional musician. What happened was that I started practicing very hard just because I was enjoying, and then my professor Costas Cotsiolis encouraged me to participate in international competitions. Then I started winning prizes and giving recitals and so on… It just happened, I didn’t decide anything!
Who are your biggest inspirations, and why?
There are so many people I admire and get inspired from. If I have to mention two, that would be:
– Dimitri Mitropoulos for being totally dedicated to his beliefs until the end, and for being so humble even when he was considered to be one of the best conductors in the world, and
– Nikos Skalkottas for proving with his attitude that to be a great musician you don’t have to be a star. What you really need is ideology!
If you ask me about guitarists, it would be Julian Bream for working with important composers, and contributing in the creation of some of the most important pieces we have in the repertoire. However I have to tell you that there are many colleagues, even younger than me, that inspire me and maybe the most precious thing we get from music is the people we meet.
How often do you play nowadays? Do you mostly do solo recitals or participate in music ensembles as well? What musical projects have you been up to lately?
I play quite often. I always give some solo recitals every year but not so many. Mostly in guitar festivals. I play a lot of chamber music, duo concerts with Dejan Ivanovich, which is a project I love, and concerts with musical ensemble “encardia”, which is something I am doing for 10 years now.
Do you have any favorite music or composer?
My favorite music is always the music which has truth inside, which speaks a language which is deep aesthetically and intellectual at the same time. You can find music like that in all kinds of music, from classical until folk.
How do you describe yourself as a musician? What’s the most important thing in music to you?
I was never a child prodigy. Whatever I achieved in music was a result of hard work. Of course there was always talent but I was not in a very high level at an early age. It was because I started working seriously at the age of 16. What makes me feel very happy with myself is that I make small steps of progress even now! Probably because I keep my enthusiasm in spite of many years of playing. And I try to keep my level of professionalism as high as possible.
I have to mention also that teaching is a big part of my activities, and it is something I take really very seriously. I learn so many things from teaching, I could write a book about it!
After becoming the first Greek musician to take the top prize in the prestigious International Francisco Tárrega Guitar Competition, what were your thoughts?
The first thing I thought, was that I will never go again in any competition. Seriously now, going to competitions is something you learn a lot from, but it is also very hard. Especially psychologically. To win a prize like that requires that everything goes according to your plan. You need also luck! Don’t forget that in such competitions there are always a lot of extremely high level guitarists who compete. So, it is a big honor when you win first prize, and a big relief. And when I think all those legendary colleagues who won the same prize, such as D.Russell, A.Desiderio, Z.Dukic, F.Zanon, A.Vidovic etc, I realize that all that effort for preparing competitions was absolutely worth it.
With so many years of experience, how do you think the World sees classical guitar? What is there to work on and improve?
Classical guitar in the post-Segovia era went through a period of growth. Nowadays there are hundreds of guitar festivals, and a lot of new music for the instrument. What I consider very important now is for the classical guitar to be more open to general public. I see that there is a danger for us to become a “ghetto” instrument, and guitarists to play concerts for a public of guitarists. We should avoid that. Guitar is an instrument that can be popular among the general public thanks to its nature, its gentle and magical timbre and above all its repertoire.
What would you say to any young guitarist seeking to achieve top level?
I always say to my students that what is the most important is to keep yourself always motivated. But we should make clear what are really our motives. To gain fame, to win money, to win prizes, those things cannot be our motives. You have chances to achieve a high level only if your motivation comes from inside. Only if you feel this vital need to play the instrument and make it a part of yourself. And these inner motives grow more and more as you have more musical experiences, because whatever you see, listen, read etc is transformed to inspiration. It is the only way to keep your enthusiasm for many years and establish a professionalism as a musician which will lead you to high level.
Interview by Monk Berkemeier