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Artist Interview: Antigoni Goni

by Stephen Rekas

Antigoni Goni has arrived, clearly establishing herself as one of the rising young stars on the international classic guitar scene through participation as a guest artist and lecturer at festivals worldwide. In addition to being a First Place Prize Winner at the 1995 International Guitar Foundation of America Competition with its attending 65-concert North American tour and NAXOS recording contract, her impressive list of first prizes and awards include:

- The 1995 Stotsenberg International Guitar Competition
- The 1993 Artists International Competition.
- The 1991 Julian Bream Competition.
- The 1988 International Guitar Competition in Havana, Cuba - Prize for Best Interpretation of Latin American Music.

In a recent concert and master class in St. Louis, Missouri, Ms Goni displayed not only refined technical skills but a broad range or emotional, dynamic and timbrel colors. These qualities combined with her unique modern repertoire and unapologetic efforts to educate her audience make for an unforgettable concert experience. Stephen Rekas Guitar Sessions® Editor

Guitar Sessions: Who or what events inspired you to play the guitar? Was music or the classic guitar a part of your household when growing up?
Antigoni Goni: I grew up in Athens, Greece. My parents were always singing, either at our home or with their friends at someone else's home, in the car, or putting me to sleep with a lullaby. The guitar was the instrument that accompanied their beautiful voices and brought friends and family together. It inspired nightlong parties where love songs were mixed with political resistance songs. It was the medium of emotional expression and human communication and bonding. It was only natural that I asked to play the guitar when I was eight. The only problem was that I was too small to hold a full-size instrument, so I waited anxiously until I was ten.

It sounds like your parents laid the perfect groundwork for your inevitable formal music training. What were your early lessons like?
My first teacher was Evangelos Assimakopoulos, a student of Segovia, Ida Presti and Alexander Lagoya. He came from a school of thought that placed sound quality first and naturally, he focused on beautiful sound, legato phrasing and soulful interpretations. Beauty and art were the only aspirations while solid technique simply offered the means to that end.

Another element of his teaching was his ability to awaken my inner critical ear. Very early, he introduced me to his vast guitar record collection. He taught me to listen critically and together we compared interpretations, different fingerings, performance communication skills, personal choices, degrees of rhythmic freedom, etc. I was never encouraged to imitate. Those listening sessions made me realize the beauty in being different, daring, creative and imaginative.

What other teachers did you seek out?
Having always admired the superb artistry of Julian Bream as well as the creative power of Leo Brouwer and I always dreamed that I might study with them. I began to realize those dreams when I was nineteen. Leo Brouwer regularly visited Greece for weeklong seminars, so meeting him was fairly easy. He became, I am sure without realizing it, sort of a mentor to me. He coached me; he invited me to compete in the 1988 Havana competition and later facilitated my other wish- to study with Julian Bream. He put me in touch with the Royal Academy of Music in London and supported my application with a fantastic letter of recommendation. This awakening brought me the good fortune of studying with wonderful artists like John Mills, Sharon Isbin, and Oscar Ghiglia.

What keeps you interested in the music business or teaching?
There is nothing that keeps me interested in the music business and everything that keeps me interested in music and the art of teaching.

Music and the classical guitar are indispensable parts of my life and without them I would simply not be who I am as a human being. This is not a matter of decision or choice; it is simply a fact of existence. So there is only one way to be, and that is creatively involved, musically alive, for as long as life allows. Teaching, in a way, is a selfish claim to eternity. There is nothing more sacred, more rewarding, more fulfilling than being actively involved in helping young people in following their dreams and building our futures.

Which of your albums would you recommend to someone buying one of your recordings for the first time?
Every album I've made represents a part of my musical journey. They are all made of flesh and spirit, my flesh and spirit- at that particular creative moment. Choosing one over the other is simply impossible. I am afraid I must leave that horrible task to my audience.

Apart from music, what are your interests?
The guitar helps me spend a lot of time alone- working, traveling, thinking, and reading. I cherish this great privilege with all my heart because it rejuvenates me and empowers me. From those solitary moments I draw the energy to fully immerse myself in my greatest love- people. I love good company, an intelligent and challenging conversation, or simply a superficial exchange of everyday news with a dear friend. Getting to meet people, entering into their lives, listening to their stories, trying to put myself into their positions -fascinates me.

What is the nature of your teaching duties at Juilliard's Pre-College Division, the Royal Conservatory in Brussels and at Columbia University?
I started the guitar department at Juilliard's Pre-College Division almost ten years ago, back in the fall of 1995. All these years have been full of joy and inspiration, the very sentiments that only students with great talents and no attitude can give you.

My affiliation with Columbia University started almost five years ago, when the music department decided to introduce music performance into its curriculum. There are still no music performance degrees available at Columbia, so my students are usually double majors or talented young people that, even though previously involved with the guitar, chose university over conservatory studies.

My newest teaching appointment at the Royal Conservatory of Brussels (Koninklijk Conservatorium Brussels) came this last fall. Located in the heart of Europe, the Royal Conservatory is one of the oldest and most prestigious music institutions in Europe. Talented students from all over the world can pursue graduate and undergraduate studies, working towards Bachelor's, Master's or Doctorate degrees. It is a wonderful environment- relaxed, human and very creative. The administration is very supportive of the guitar and open to innovative ideas. My ambition is to make the department a focal point for the guitar in Europe, offering talented students not only the means to pursue their studies but also as much performance experience as humanly possible. The other fascinating aspect of this position is that this coming year I will be moving to Brussels, taking a year's leave of absence from Juilliard and Columbia in order to establish a solid foundation for the department.

What sort of practice routine would you recommend for the beginning, intermediate or advanced player? Please describe your own practice routine.
There is no single routine that would work equally well for all players. What I do is what I recommend to my students, and that is a well-balanced set of scales, slurs and arpeggios. Whether you find them in a method book or extract them from a concert piece makes no real difference. If I have the luxury of time, I like to add shifts, stretches, 8ves, 3rds and 5ths. I also have a set of my own excerpts from pieces that offer technical challenges and use them to finish my warm-up.

In your role as a teacher, what areas do you emphasize with your students?
Oh dear! How am I supposed to answer this one in few lines?
Building a solid technique is essential since, without it, there is no freedom of expression.
Building a young artist's self-confidence and helping him/her find their own artistic identity is another area that I try to focus on.

As for the vast area of interpretation, I believe my role is to give students direction, broaden their horizons, inspire them to become better than their limitations would suggest, and ultimately leave them the space to find their own voices.

Any suggestions on forming a concert repertoire?
To form a repertoire you have to be true to your inner voice. I encourage students to do what I myself do: play what I love, what inspires me, what challenges me, what represents me [emotionally and artistically]. To do that, you have to know your strengths and weaknesses, establish limits on compromise, and be sure of what your art is all about. When you are a student, of course, competing and trying to break through- you can apply all of the above guidelines within the limitations that audition/competition/jury repertoires set. The most convincing, exciting, audience-pleasing repertoire is the one that inspires the artist.

What do you feel are your technical strengths and weaknesses?
Well, what a tricky self-exposing question!!!! Let's see…strengths? Well, my right hand for sure. Ever since I can remember, I've felt that I could blindly rely on it. Sound quality and projection are other areas where I feel very confident. As for weaknesses...Oh dear!! More than you can count, more that I probably know! One that I've always worked on is economy of movement in my left hand. I've never been satisfied with it.

What do you do to keep your concert repertoire sounding fresh?
You know, last night I went and saw, Bernstein's musical, Beautiful Town, on Broadway. I was blown away. The lead actress/singer was amazing, simply brilliant! What freshness, what energy! I walked out and couldn't help but admire her even more for putting this show up six nights a week for what I'm sure must be more than a couple of months already.

The first time I encountered a similar challenge was during my GFA tour. It was then that I realized that breathing fresh air into a well-seasoned repertoire is not an easy matter. I found then what I continue to practice now, and that is- being present to communicate and interact with a different audience, gauging the varied amount of energy that the audience brings into the concert hall, as well as feeling totally alive at the moment and for the moment. The only way I can enjoy every moment is as though it were the last one.

On the other hand, when I "recycle" old repertoire, I don't have to try very hard; I just try not to remember what I did the previous time, rediscovering the piece all over again.

How did competing in the GFA competition influence your career or musical choices?
It was not competing in the GFA event, but rather winning it that influenced my career - but certainly not my career choices. I remember 1995 was the year that a lot of things came together: the GFA tour, the Naxos recording, the Juilliard appointment. It was then that the strongest personal and professional relationships were realized and for that I am grateful.

Did you adopt any particular competition strategy?
Yes and no. What helped my spirit and my focus was a set of Alexander Technique lessons I did with a brilliant teacher who works only with drama students at Juilliard. Apart from posture, she taught me how to emulate the reality of the concert long before I reached the stage. She showed me how to prepare mentally by achieving inner calmness and stillness through breathing techniques. Other than that, the summer before I performed in the competition, I studied with Oscar Ghiglia in Sienna, Italy. It was a conscious choice derived from the knowledge that he would probably grind me to fine powder! It worked!

Which areas of the standard repertoire would you like to explore?
My answer to that question is simple: J. S. Bach.

More than any concert guitarist I've heard recently, your repertoire is filled with new original works and arrangements for the classic guitar. Where do you find them all? Are any of them in print, or do you commission them for your exclusive performance?
It is true that I love the challenge of presenting new music for the guitar. Studying at Juilliard gave me the opportunity to meet and become close friends with a lot of modern composers. Following their workshops turned me on to the exciting creative process.
As I always look for new music, I try to stay informed as to who's who in the composition world. In terms of arrangements, the best ones come from guitar composers, so those are the ones I seek out.

How do you go about making contact with a composer you have never met?
I suppose you're referring to non-guitarist composers. It really depends. Generally, this is something that my agent addresses.

When you "commission" a new work, do you have any input as to the nature of the piece? Do you collaborate with the composer while the work is in progress? Have you worked closely with composers who are not guitarists?
Naturally, every composer works in a different way. I like to work with the composer but the closest collaboration happens with composers who are not guitarists. There, the exchange is intense. The most recent example was "Dialogues" by Augusta Read- Thomas; her first finished version of the piece changed entirely. From that first piece she kept only the opening two bars. When I worked with [Stanley] Silverman, the edited version was slightly different from the original; the changes were my suggestions but ultimately his realizations. When I choose a composer, it's because I like their musical style and I trust their talent, so even though I like to speak of "my piece", I ultimately leave the decisions to the composer.

Is there an actual "up-front" payment for the piece, or do you offer a guarantee of a royalty on recordings or performances?
Again, every situation is different, but generally I try very hard to pay the composer their asking fee. It is not always easy, but most of the time it works out best for everyone.

What works have you commissioned to date? Have you performed or recorded them all?
The works I have commissioned, or those that were composed especially for me are:
Solo music by Augusta Read-Thomas, Sergio Assad, Jon Magnussen, Stanley Silverman, Caliope Tsoupaki, Bryan Johanson. There is a concerto by Efraim Podgaits and chamber music by Dan Coleman, Ernesto Cordero, Simone Yiannareli, and Tulio Peramo; there is also a work-in-progress; Dusan Bogdanovic is writing a piece for me for flute and guitar. By the end of the next season I will be able to say that YES, I have performed them all and record most of them.

What are the key elements of your style?
Although I feel very self-conscious in responding to this question, I would say lyricism, power, and a broad palette of nuances and dynamics.

What are your preferred instruments and strings? Are there any products you endorse?
I play a 1989 José Romanillos and a 1997 Olivier Fanton D' Anton. Savarez strings are the only product that I officially endorse. Even so, I enjoy using other products like my compact, light and strong guitar case, my Belgian backpack straps, the Intelli-tuner for chamber music and the Gitano guitar support, the use of which will hopefully lead to less pain in my old age.

Do you recommend professional management or self-management?

How would you rate your experience with record companies?
Since I have only recorded for Naxos records, my experience is somewhat limited. My collaboration with them was very enjoyable and fruitful and, at the time, helpful for my solo career.

What is your performance schedule like these days?
Apart from my return to San Francisco this coming fall for my third year of residency with San Francisco Performances, my summer and fall touring is focused on Central and Eastern Europe.
This coming July, I will be performing at the Esztergom Festival in Hungary, a very exciting engagement as this is one of the oldest and most prestigious guitar festivals in Europe. From there I will go to Poland where from August 15 to 25 I will be teaching and performing at the Szczawno summer festival. During the fall and early winter of 2004 I will be in Belgium, The Netherlands, Germany and Russia for solo and concerto appearances.

Can you offer any tips on touring, performance etiquette or artist/venue manager relations?
I guess I could give a couple of tips. Travel light! I learned that after destroying my back!
We are in the performing arts so everything matters: how you sit, how you stand, how you walk, what you wear, how you talk, how you smile. It might sound trivial but an audience can sense how an artist will play from the first steps he or she takes on stage.
Our profession is by its very definition a very social one. The more you enjoy new people and their company the more they enjoy you. Also keep in mind that the time of the great divas has passed. That type of demanding and egocentric behavior almost always backfires.

How do you balance your time between teaching, developing fresh repertoire, performing, and recording?
I have developed great circus techniques. Just kidding! I think that what helps me keep the right proportions, for myself of course, is my need for normal everyday life. By taking breaks to be with my husband and my friends I naturally schedule breaks in all my activities, maintaining the fresh air of variety.

Just one more question - Yesterday I heard a National Public Radio program about preparations for the upcoming Summer Olympics in Greece. It was revealed that Greece has a population of only about 13,000,000 people. How is it that there are so many prominent young classic guitarists among that population? Do you all know one another, or did you study with some of the same teachers?
There must be something in the water!

Well, to answer your question I must quote my Greek guitar teacher [Evangelos Assimakopoulos]- "Greece produces olives, oranges and classical guitarists."

One might say that it must be something in the water… and the sun and our culture in general. Greeks love to socialize, love to sing, love to live! They have obviously figured out that there isn't a more beautiful, more portable, more versatile instrument than the nylon-string classic guitar to accompany the human voice. As you can imagine, the transition is very easy; the instrument is the same, the sound is the same and the Spanish repertoire one naturally starts with is inherently very close to Greek temperament!

To learn more about Antigoni Goni please visit her website at: www.antigonigoni.com.

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