From Baroque to Samba – The Classical Guitar of Amanda Cook

Written by: Julian Maynard-Smith

Classical guitarist Amanda Cook talks to Julian Maynard-Smith about the joys of eclecticism, the lure of Latin-America and the importance of being passionate about chamber music…

Amanda Cook, a rising star of the classical guitar, will be performing solo at the Wigmore Hall on 17 March. Her performance will include the world premiere of Sonata No. 2 by Nato Lima (which was written for Amanda), and two pieces by William Lovelady (The Curlew and White Stone), a composer who has also written for her.

I ask Amanda what informed her eclectic choice of pieces for the Wigmore performance, pieces that range from Scarlatti to traditional Peruvian music. “I always try to have a balanced repertoire, a lot of variety, so people can hear what the guitar can do. I also wanted to put in a lot from the new CD, “Strictly Latin”, and balance that with my repertoire. The Mozart piece (Adagio, K540) is a transcription by guitarist Benjamin Verdery. I really love Scarlatti on the guitar, and I’ve chosen three of my favourite sonatas. The harpsichord has a similar attack, because of the plucked strings, and one of the sonatas has a lot of rolled chords, as if imitating the guitar. As the opener I’m doing a piece by Rodrigo, Junto al Generalife, which is inspired by the gardens of the Palácio de Generalife in Granada. It shows off the beauty of the guitar sound.

“Nato Lima wrote Sonata No.2 in 2004. He heard my CD (“Debut”), loved the playing on it, and wanted to come over and record in the church where I’d recorded it. He stayed with my family and we became good friends. He’d written down a few ideas for the sonata about 40 years ago. It’s quite remarkable because he grew up in the jungle, part of a tribe, and had no formal musical training, yet this piece is like a Romantic sonata from the late nineteenth-century. He’d spent most of his time playing Brazilian music, so it was quite a sideways step.

“William Lovelady and I have been friends for many years, and he dedicated a piece to me for the first anniversary of the bombing in Omagh (This Morning in Omagh the Sun Rose Again). I played it at a couple of churches in Omagh, on the anniversary, and since then I’ve played quite a few of his pieces, some of which are based on his friend’s poems. He plays the guitar, so his pieces bring out the best of the instrument.”

Amanda’s latest CD includes music from Peru, Brazil and Cuba. Where does her interest in Latin-American music come from?

“I have been to Peru twice, and on the first trip I was given quite a lot of music by Peruvian musicians. My second trip in 2006 was to play at a British Peruvian music festival in Lima, and give several concerts around the city with some local musicians. I went with another guitarist, Ray Burley, and we did some duos, solos and chamber music with the Peruvians, so it was a fantastic opportunity to share musical experiences. They were keen for me to play some Peruvian music, but I was a little apprehensive, being the English girl. But I think they liked the fact I was playing it. The music is so much a part of the culture of the people – when you go to these places, you see that people are very proud of their musical heritage. The fact that they are very passionate is very – how can I put it? – infectious.

“At the Wigmore, I wanted to do a short set of three popular pieces. One’s a tango, Gallo Ciego, which translates as ‘blind rooster’. It’s a play on words: it’s the game that we know as blind man’s buff, and also refers to the chicken fights they had in Buenos Aires, where the chickens would often become blind from being scratched. It’s quite tongue in cheek. There’s also Samba em Preludio (by the Brazilian guitarist Baden Powell and the composer and poet Vinicius de Moraes), which translates as ‘samba in prelude’. The third piece, Arriba los Panuelos, refers to a Peruvian dance where the dancers wave above their heads a handkerchief to help them keep time.”

And what about the pieces on the new CD, “Strictly Latin”? “I’m playing the sonata that was written for me by Nato Lima, and Gallo Ciego. I absolutely adore Latin music, but I didn’t just want to release what’s been done before. I wanted to show the variety and breadth of what’s out there. For example, the sonata doesn’t sound Brazilian at all. Also there’s a piece by the Cuban composer Leo Brouwer – it’s based on some African stories, and I’ve been playing it for a while. Again, it has Cuban influences but it’s quite a contemporary piece. But still lyrical. There’s also Samba em Preludio and Valsa sem Nome (Waltz without name) – both by Baden Powell and Vinicius de Moraes. There’s a couple of Venezuelan pieces as well – again, they are from the more popular folk-tunes I wanted to put on there. I wanted to intersperse heavier pieces with lighter, folk-tunes.”

Amanda found her musical inspiration from an early age. “My parents had a lot of classical guitar records at home, and I was really drawn to the sound. And before I was born, my father was a guitarist in a blues band. He still had a couple of guitars and showed me a few things. We were very lucky in that where I grew up there was a fantastic Russian guitar player – Sasha Levtov.”

Jacqueline du Pré was also a great influence. “I’ve always loved the cello, as well as du Pré’s passion for the instrument and the way she put that across to the audience. I thought it was really inspiring. I was also a big fan of the guitarist David Russell while growing up. I saw him live when I was 15, and what I’m drawn to is the way he communicates and the soundworld he creates. I think it’s important for performance to be a two-way process. Even Jeff Buckley, the way he sang. I like the fact that you can do so much with the guitar,” Amanda adds, explaining her wide-ranging choice of repertoire. “But I do take time to ensure that people aren’t going to get too much of a shock going from one thing to the next.”

Another influence has been Maria Callas. “I think it’s important as a instrumentalist to ‘sing’, to work out the most natural way to phrase it. I hear it in my head as I’m singing, and then I’m able to translate that through the strings, keeping the continuity through a phrase. On a guitar it can be difficult to play legato so I work on that, and working through the phrasing that way. And the way you finger a piece – if you want something sweeter and warmer, you can play it on the third string rather than the first. If you repeat a phrase, you can play it somewhere else on the guitar and have a different sound.”

Amanda’s guitar was made by the acclaimed Dutch guitar maker Bert Kwakkel. “I was loaned a guitar and on the lookout for my own instrument, getting my hands on everything I could. I was looking for richness, clarity and warmth. John Mills plays Kwakkel guitars a lot, and helps to bring them over to the UK. Quite a few English players have them. Mine has great balance from the bass to the treble. It was brand new when I got it and they open up over a couple of years, so it can be a risk. But when I tried this one, it was beautiful from the word go.”

Amanda loves performing solo, but has a number of other projects running concurrently. “As a solo guitarist, it’s hard to be just that. I think it really enriches your music to play chamber music. Also it’s quite sociable – I’m in a trio with two old friends I met at a guitar festival in the south of England. We’ve been together for about three years.”

The trio in question is Appassionata, with Rebecca Baulch and Hayley Savage. “There’s not much original stuff written for guitar trio, and a lot of it is quite clearly divided up between melody, harmony and bass. We wanted to mix it up. Hayley is a composer and has written some stuff for us, and Rebecca and I arrange quite a lot as well. We’re lucky in being guitarists – being able to go from Bach to traditional Brazilian music while being convincing in both.

“There’s also G+. I started working with them last year. It’s a group formed by the artistic director of the International Guitar Foundation, Tom Kerstens. They commission a lot of music. It’s two guitars, string quartet and percussion. We’re playing in the Purcell Room at the beginning of May. We’ve just been recording a CD with a lot of music by Joby Talbot, who used to be in the Divine Comedy. Now he does a lot of classical compositions, film scores and arrangements for pop bands. Joby’s music is very rewarding and immediate. He has a classical group that these pieces were written for, and they have been arranged for G+ by one of his colleagues.”

Plenty of opportunities, then, of hearing Amanda both live and recorded. Those wanting an immediate taster of Amanda’s music can check out her music at MySpace. Why does Amanda think that MySpace has become so hugely popular for musicians? “I think it’s very difficult to forge a career nowadays. Companies are not taking on so many musicians, and you have to work hard to get your name around – especially for classical guitarists, who are not always considered to be in the mainstream and are still slightly poo-pooed. Right from being a teenager, I’ve been going to festivals and meeting other musicians. MySpace is another aspect of that, trying to make more people aware of what you are doing.”

If the enthusiasm generated by Amanda’s previous concerts and the quality of her recordings are anything to go by, people won’t need much persuasion.

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