No classical guitarist has done more to enliven the confining format of the solo guitar recital than Eliot Fisk.
The renowned virtuoso frequently journeys beyond traditional guitar territory, borrowing repertoire from other instruments, often inviting friends to share the spotlight.
Fisk has given recitals where half the program might be Paganini violin caprices, the other half Bach cello suites.
He’s performed Bach’s keyboard works, lute suites, and organ trios. He’s collaborated with such colleagues as flutist Paula Robison, violinist Ruggiero Ricci, and jazz and flamenco guitarists Joe Pass and Paco Peña. He regularly performs guitar duos with his wife, the accomplished guitarist Zaira Meneses.
But until his appearance at the Zoellner Arts Center in Bethlehem on Oct. 12, in a gala fundraising concert presented by the Bach Choir of Bethlehem, Fisk has never performed as part of a family trio. For the first time in public, Fisk will be joined by his wife and 12-year-olddaughter, Raquel, on piano. The concert will mark Fisk’s fourth appearance in a Bach Choir program.
“The Bethlehem concert is really exciting for us — it’s the first time we’ve been engaged as a family to perform,” says Fisk from his home in Newton, Mass. (actually, make that one of his homes, since he also spends time in Salzburg and Granada). “It’s like what Bach said in that famous letter, that he could practically make an orchestra out of his family members. Well, we’re not quite that numerous.”
Fisk, 59, remains the center of gravity in a program of music by Bach, Mendelssohn, Chopin, Prokofiev, and Spanish and Latin composers. Fisk has performed worldwide, from Carnegie Hall to the Concertgebouw, including for President Bill Clinton at the invitation of the Spanish Royal Family.
Throughout his extensive solo career, he’s enriched the guitar repertoire through numerous recordings and transcriptions of works by composers ranging from Bach and Scarlatti to Paganini, Mendelssohn, Albeniz, and de Falla.
Fisk is virtually the last direct disciple of Andrés Segovia, and as such seeks to combine the guitar’s great romantic tradition with the best in contemporary trends. A faculty member of the New England Conservatory in Boston, where he teaches guitar in five languages, Fisk pursues a lifelong interest in musical outreach and fulfills his deep commitment to teaching.
“My work on the guitar is all about getting the instrument out of the classical guitar ghetto — that’s been my thing for years. It’s not completed yet, it still can be very navel-gazing and myopic,” Fisk says. “There just isn’t the ongoing, organized interplay of ideas there should be.”
To help get the word out, Fisk founded the Boston GuitarFest, now in its eighth year. While its main focus is on the classical guitar, the festival also aims to set the instrument within a broader musical, cultural and social context.
“I want to get a more universal message out there. The things you can do on the guitar are just mind-boggling. On the one hand, it’s this simple folk instrument, very easy to play. Yet I’ve commissioned monumental, big-stage works that take a lot of conviction and virtuosity, works by Robert Beaser, Luciano Berio, George Rochberg, and others,” Fisk says.
Mixing it up is what Fisk is all about. One of his most important mentors was not a guitarist at all, but the great harpsichordist Ralph Kirkpatrick. “That’s one of the things that interests me about the guitar so much — you can steal from so many different instruments, from the violin, from the keyboard. Kirkpatrick had a very strong influence on me, not only his Scarlatti, but especially his Bach interpretation, which was revelatory for me,” Fisk says. “I was interested in his musical take on things he wasn’t necessarily known for.”
Fisk’s un-guitarlike approach to the guitar is shared by his wife, Zaira Meneses. “She’s done a lot of other things — she’s a gifted dancer and has done flamenco, she has a beautiful voice and has sung opera. She’s also performed in the wonderful guitar orchestra in Mexico founded by Alfonso Moreno. So when she comes to the guitar, she brings this unusual orientation with her,” Fisk says.
Meneses started playing classical guitar at the age of 6, growing up in Cuernavaca, Mexico, and has performed throughout Mexico, the United States, and Europe. Says Fisk, “We have significantly different backgrounds, so our talents both complement and intersect each other.”
Fisk claims he doesn’t come from a musical family, but his 12-year-old daughter Raquel can’t say the same. Raquel, who’s been playing the piano since the age of 4, has become a regular at the Boston GuitarFest, and performed in May at the Fine Arts Festival in Carnegie Hall.
“She’s just a natural on the stage, but we’re not pushing her. She likes to perform — for her, it’s really like play,” Fisk says. “That’s really what it’s all about, and I work on that a lot with my students. I’ll ask them, what are you doing now, playing the guitar, right? Remember what that was like when you used to play in the sandbox as a kid?”
Playing, fooling around, experimenting. That’s the true spirit of music Fisk wants to impress on his students. “I really worry that we’re getting too far away from that spirit, with this one-click YouTube approach to music. Those performances are just superficial, silly snapshots, yet so many young people now think that YouTube is music,” he says.
For their Bethlehem program, the Fisk family will be fooling around, but in a serious, music-making way. Meneses will open the concert with Bach’s famous Prelude, Fugue, and Allegro, BWV 998. Raquel is up next with Bach’s C sharp minor Prelude and Fugue, Mendelssohn’s “Song Without Words,” and, according to Fisk, “this crazy little hair-raising encore piece by Prokofiev.” Fisk and Meneses will round out the program’s first half with a pair of Chopin waltzes in a version for two guitars the couple has already made popular.
The second half of the program is all Fisk’s, and, true to his word, he was still fooling around with his repertoire at the time I spoke to him. “I’ll probably do some Spanish stuff, my new arrangement of Bach’s third cello suite, and maybe go into more Latin and Spanish material and finish like that. I might even throw in some Villa Lobos, who was so inspired by Bach,” he says.
For Fisk, playing the guitar might be fun, but it’s still serious work. “I might be all over the musical globe, but my emphasis has always been more on the classical side of things. The guitar still has the need to be defined as a serious instrument, which is why I am so grateful to the Bach Festival for really taking me seriously as a Bach interpreter,” he says. “Of all the composers, Bach is the one I feel closest to, and the one I’ve spent the most time working on. I don’t know anyone else who plays all Bach’s sonatas and partitas for violin, all the cello suites, all the lute suites. I’ve even recorded the six organ trio sonatas.”
It’s unlikely any other instrument than the guitar could do all that. In fact, Fisk is not shy about pitting his handmade Thomas Humphrey Millennium guitar against a 1,000 pound Steinway Grand, at least in the case of Schubert lieder.
“I do a great deal of transcribing, even some Schubert songs. They have a lovely lyricism, and somehow I don’t think the Steinway gets it. It’s too big, too heavy, like a Cadillac,” Fisk says. “You don’t need a Cadillac for everything — sometimes, a nimble stick-shift will do.”