Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Concert preview: William Kanengiser set to perform in Riverside, Calif.

photo by Jiro Schneider
William Kanengiser
With: Riverside County Philharmonic
Where: Fox Performing Arts Center, 3801 Mission Inn Ave., Riverside
When: 7:30 p.m. March 5

When William Kanengiser performs with the Riverside County Philharmonic for the fourth concert of the orchestra’s 2015-16 season, the results should transport listeners to a musical paradise.

The program, “Guitar + Chamber Music = A Match Made in Heaven,” features the classical guitarist spotlighted on three works written by Vivaldi.

He is a founding member of Los Angeles Guitar Quartet, which formed in 1980 and saw its “Guitar Heroes” win the Grammy Award for Best Classical Crossover Album in ’05. Kanengiser obtained music degrees at USC when world renown classical and flamenco guitarist Pepe Romero was Artist in Residence and has taught there for more than three decades.

Here is a Q&A we did in advance of his Inland Empire performance...

Q: Can you tell me about your connection with USC?
My history with USC is long in that I started as a student there in 1977. Got my bachelor’s and master's degrees in classical guitar. I was lucky to have as the Artist in Residence for the first four years, the great Pepe Romero. The Spanish virtuoso has been my guitar guru and dear friend and role model for my whole career. When I graduated in ’83, I joined the faculty and have been there ever since. Pepe has returned as Artist in Residence for the last 10 years. It’s a wonderful thing for me to have this relationship with USC and Pepe. In a way, it’s the reason the Los Angeles Guitar Quartet was formed: we all met there and formed in 1980. We all wanted to study with Pepe and follow his quartet Los Romeros. We ended up forming LAGQ and going off on our own stylistic adventures. It’s a very symbiotic thing for me – USC and Pepe and the quartet. Even my daughter earned her degree in animation from the USC cinema school. I’m a student, faculty and parent.

Q: Will the concert here be your Fox debut?
First time at the Fox. I have played with the symphony quite a few years ago.

Q: So you’ve been in town before.
My wife and I love Riverside. I’ve played a few solo recitals at Riverside Community College. A good friend of mine teaches there. We’ve stayed at the Mission Inn, just for vacation, a number of times. We love that place and the history of it. The cupcakes! My wife is also very fond of Victorian homes, so we’ve done the tour of some of the Victorians there. The history in Riverside is really fantastic. Love it.

Q: How did the booking with the Philharmonic come about?
Many years ago, they hired me to do this set of three lovely Vivaldi concertos. I guess they thought, ‘let’s do it again. Let’s bring in an Italian baroque revival.’ I said, 'sure, this is a lot of fun.’

Q: The “Mandolin and Orchestra Concerto in C” in the program is considered a high demand piece. Do you find it really challenging?
These were meant as salon pieces. They’re so engaging and joyous. They have all the hallmarks of the great Vivaldi style – projecting pure emotion. The middle movements are beautiful frozen moments in time that Vivaldi can get and we know so well from ‘The Four Seasons.’ It’s tricky in the sense that the one concerto was written for the mandolin, not the guitar. So I’m going to be using almost like a mandolin-like technique with that. As if I had a pick. The other two concertos were written for the lute. The lute’s technique is closer to the mandolin as well. It’s not as much in the modern classical guitar style; it’s more in the baroque early music style. They’re fun to play and it’s just colorful, joyous music. The C Major Concerto for Mandolin is very famous because it was used in the film ‘Kramer Vs. Kramer.’ I’d say the most popular and recognizable of the three is the Concerto in D written for lute. It was originally a trio for cello, violin and lute. It’s been expanded out to become an orchestral piece. Just for strength and continuum. The second movement of the D Major is one of the most gorgeous pieces Vivaldi ever wrote. It’s a simple little melody, but the delicate sound of the guitar floats over this atmospheric pad of the strings. To me, it’s almost like a spiritual experience.

Q: Does your performance approach differ when playing solo with orchestra as opposed to with LAGQ? 
All three experiences – working with a chamber group for 35 years vs. being onstage all by myself, then compared to being with a group of musicians I’ve never met but still finding communication and excitement together. All three of those are different in terms of the energy and attention I have to use. I like to think that all three of these skills that I’ve acquired – each of them help the other. The fact that I’ve worked with the quartet for so long means I’m essentially a chamber musician who happens to play by myself sometimes. Quite a few guitarists are soloists, first and foremost. Then they learn to play with other people. I almost like to think of concertos as being a duet between myself and the conductor. Of course I’m playing with everyone else, but I like to think of it as a really collaborative experience. Just like in the quartet. We do a lot of give and take. That almost improvisational adjustment happens when people are really working together. That’s what I like to feel. That skill has actually carried over to my solo playing a bit. Even in a solo recital, I can have an element of freedom to it in the sense of collaboration.

Q: You did some Eastern European shows with the quartet last December. How did that go?
We play quite a bit in Europe and especially Germany. We also just did our first concert in the Baltics. We played in Lithuania and Latvia. The people were fantastic; the concert halls were beautiful. Especially the capitol of Lithuania. A very historic place. I have Jewish heritage and I got to visit the one remaining synagogue there. Just glorious. I have a talent with languages. What I like to do is whenever we go to a new country, I learn a greeting: ‘Good evening, ladies and gentlemen. We’re happy to be here.’ I can say it in about 20 languages. I had to learn it very quickly in Lithuanian and Latvian. Apparently, they were pretty surprised it was actually quite clear. Especially in a country like that where very few people outside the country speak their language, they really were kind of honored and surprised.

Q: If you had to pick three favorite guitarists from any genre, who would they be and why?

About 10 years ago, the guitar quartet recorded a CD called ‘Guitar Heroes.’ So that was our tribute to some of the guitarists that were really important to us. So all those guys, about 12 of them…if we limit it to the tradition of classical music, I definitely have three.

First and foremost is Pepe Romero. One of the great virtuosos. He’s now the elder statesman. The role that Segovia played as being our connection to the past great virtuosos, he’s the guy. Pepe represents the essential Spanish virtuoso and he’s also a phenomenal person and teacher.

Second is a dear friend of mine and one of my absolute favorite guitarists from the next generation. He’s a little older than me: David Russell. He plays all styles of classical guitar. I heard him in my second year at USC and he changed my life. He’s a Grammy winner as well. I love his musicality and his technique is flawless. He does everything with joy.

The last one is the lutenist Paul Odette. He’s the greatest living lutenist. He’s also one of the great scholars of early music. He’s won multiple Grammys as a conductor of baroque opera. He’s like a walking encyclopedia and one of the most brilliant people I’ve ever met. He’s not academic in that his music making is always tied to emotion and expression and human feelings. His whole approach to early music is that many people think that early music is sort of dry and not very romantic. But it’s some of the most expressive and human of musical styles. Just a different expression than, let’s say, Wagner or Beethoven. Because he has such a great understanding of opera and the importance of what the libretto would be saying…he represents the pinnacle of complete artists and scholars and wonderful human beings.

Q: When Sting put out his album of lute music, “Songs from the Labyrinth,” it showed many people how beautiful that music is.
That was lute music of a slightly different type than Vivaldi’s Italian lute music. [Sting] was focusing on the wonderful John Dowland from Queen Elizabeth’s England. It was fantastic that Sting turned his attention to that. I actually met him a couple times and discussed Dowland and he’s infatuated with Bach and plays him every morning. It shows what a broad artist he is.

Q: Do you consider yourself exclusively a classical guitarist? 
I would never put myself in the category of a great jazz player or a great rock player, but I love those styles. I grew up idolizing those players and tried my hand at it. [Later], when I did the ‘Classical Cool’ record, I wanted to find common ground between traditional classical guitar and jazz. I’m not a jazz improviser per se. That’s a whole different skill. For a classical guy, I understand the style and how to swing. Similarly, I don’t play electric guitar with a big amp or anything. But I understand the raw energy and rhythmic drive. The primal expression that rock has. I like to have that feeling too.

Q: Early on, you were inspired by Steve Howe of YES.
Absolutely. A bunch of songs. For the ‘Guitar Heroes’ project, I learned his piece ‘Mood for a Day’ when I was in junior high, I figured it out off the record. It always stuck with me. That was his solo nylon piece. Years later, I did an arrangement of it for ‘Guitar Heroes’ and did it in sort of a flamenco style. When I listened to his recording, I thought of flamenco and renaissance [music]. I did it full up flamenco with the guys doing the full alternating clapping in a [traditional] way. We actually recorded it on flamenco guitars, which have a different sound. That was really fun for me. I actually got an email from Steve Howe about how he liked it. What he really liked was my arrangement of a Chet Atkins tune that we did on there. He’s a huge Atkins fan. That was pretty nice for me.

Q: Turning to some of your studio work over the years, I was impressed that you worked with Danny Elfman on the ‘Sommersby’ soundtrack. What was that experience like? 
It was not a typical score [for him]; a period piece set in the Civil War. Very romantic and nostalgic. But the thing from that period that I’m far more well known for is I played guitar on the [1986] movie ‘Crossroads.’ That’s the thing people will really know. The other two were work for hire things. ‘Crossroads’ was a big thing for me. Some of the classical guitar playing on there was me recording it. I also worked with [actor] Ralph Macchio to coach him to look like a classical player for the scenes. He was great a mimicking slide guitar because he just had to move his arm around. But looking like he had that finger dexterity was tricky. That was a great experience for me and led to quite a few other opportunities. From that period, ‘Crossroads’ is a real seminal thing in my career.

Q: After seeing the video clip of you mimicking famous classical guitarists at a  music convention, it was obvious that comedy is also one of your side interests. How did you react when the opportunity to work with John Cleese on the Don Quixote project came along?
When I was in high school, the only thing I spent more time on than guitar was listening to and memorizing Monty Python and sort of the American version, The Firesign Theater. Fast forward 30 years later and I created this show for four guitars and an actor based on Don Quixote. I shared a stage with John Cleese. He couldn’t tour with us, so we toured it with Phil Proctor, who was like my No.1 guy from Firesign Theater. The chances of that happening, that my two comic heroes in high school, who I would never meet, I ended up sharing the stage with them. I still have to pinch myself about it. Phil Proctor is a phenomenal guy and hysterically funny in the show. Even though I created it, I have to say it was a really great show. I have no training as a dramaturg, but I just thought, ‘somebody’s got to do this.’ I read the [900 page] book about six times, whittled it down, got some help from various people and I created this narrative that told a condensed arc of the story. Then I arranged all this Spanish renaissance music to go with it. Incidentally, the [LAGQ] newest record features 16 of those arrangements.

A condensed section of this interview originally appeared in the February/March issue of Inland Custom Publishing Group's Riverside Magazine. Past issues can be viewed at

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