An interview with the guitarist Alice Artzt

As promised in an earlier post, I am very excited to bring to you an interview with the classical guitarist Alice Artzt.

Alice Artzt

Artzt is a guitarist who was described in Guitar International magazine as ‘America’s best player’. She is also a former student of Alexandre Lagoya, Julian Bream and the great Ida Presti.

In this unique and open interview, we discuss a range of topics, from Presti, to guitar technique, Artzt’s own playing career and even Charlie Chaplin. I’d like to personally thank Alice Artzt for taking the time to give this interview and for sharing with our readers information that I can safely say is not available anywhere else on the internet.

As part of your own career in music, you had the opportunity to study under the great guitarist Ida Presti. How did the opportunity come about and what was she like as a teacher?

Ida Presti

I heard Presti and Lagoya perform in NYC’s Town Hall on their first USA tour and was completely entranced.  So I went back stage to talk to them, which fortunately I could do easily in French.  I asked a whole pile of questions the last of which was to find out where I could study with them.  They said they’d be teaching at the Jeunesses Musicales music camp in Magog Canada that summer – so I went there.  When I was there, because of my good knowledge of French, and probably also because of my eager devotion and determination as a guitarist, I got to know them pretty well and even did a bit of translating for them.  So after that, any time they would come to the USA on tour, I’d spend as much time as I could with them getting free lessons and also helping them with translations and in any other ways I could.  I also went to Paris when they were at home there, and holed up in a cheap hotel and waited with other students for times when they’d phone us to say we could come see  them and play for them.  We’d bring boxes of candies or flowers and would spend the afternoon there getting lessons.  I also went to the summer master classes they held at the Academie Internationale d’Ete in Nice France.

Ida Presti was a marvelous teacher – very good at analyzing what needed fixing and figuring out complex fingerings.  She could play anything instantly, beautifully at any speed you could imagine, even when sight reading.  She was an inspiration in every possible way, as well as being a very joyful fun person to be around.  She liked to play practical jokes on students, and on Lagoya also, and was an enormously kind warm person.  I’ve always thought of her as a sort of saint – the only one I’ve ever known.   She had that sort of charisma – that when she was in a room, or on stage, you could not take your eyes off her.  She seemed more alive than other people.  Lagoya was also teaching at all these classes, but it seemed as though he generally dealt with a bunch of male students he liked but who seemed less likely to have actual careers as guitarists, while Presti perked up when some of the more advanced, hard working, or intensely involved students started to play, and then she’d just take over teaching their lessons.

You have a series of extremely interesting videos where you discuss Presti’s technique. What made her technique so unique and what is it that makes her such an important figure in the classical guitar genre?

The Presti technique is unique in that it makes it possible for anyone who is reasonably relaxed to play with a great deal of power and a big full tone without very much effort.  Looking at pictures of Tarrega and Llobet, I suspect that what she was doing was historically not all that rare, but these days, it seems not so many people play that way.  I find this a pity since it not only gets better results much more easily than what are considered now the standard techniques, but also it is so much less likely to cause problems of tension and semi paralysis that a number of guitarists and lutenists have succumbed to in mid career.  And in a few cases, I’ve found that changing to the Presti position actually cured people who had wrecked their right hands by playing in problematical ways.  This particular syndrome is surprisingly common, and is devastating to anyone who has it.   I do intend to make a video about it at some point when I have the time.

But I am a poster child for the transformative effect of the Presti position.  When I first studied with her in Canada, I had been playing for about 6 years, practicing 6 or so hours a day and completely determined to have a concert career.   I had started doing what my teacher told me Segovia did, and after some years, when that seemed somewhat unreliable and created problems of stability, I tried to change to what I perceived Julian Bream did.  That got me a better sound than I had had, but still was unreliable and unstable.  However I thought I was on the right track finally.  Then I went to Canada and was fairly horrified to find that everyone who took one look at my right hand that first day,  told me that I’d have to change right hand positions – which in fact I did.  At first it seemed very odd – nearly impossible.  But after a couple of days I figured out it actually worked quite well, and by the end of the class – 3 weeks – I could play everything I had played before but now with a much bigger better tone, much more control, and much more stability.  It seemed to me a miraculous transformation, and I have spent a lot of my life since then trying to get other people to experience that same wonderful feeling – of being totally relaxed, playing freely and strongly with very little effort.  Knowing what I now know, I am totally convinced that if I had not met Presti and had not changed my technique to hers, I’d NEVER have got to play at the level I did, nor would I have had the career I did.

Ida Presti is often cast as a tragic character. To what extent do you feel that this assertion is true?

Well certainly Presti had a very odd childhood – not in fact much of a childhood at all since her father home schooled her and had her practicing for hours every day from age 6 on.  However it is also clear that there was a great deal of love between her and her father, and she ended up a very loving and warm person, unlike many child protégées.  Whenever I encountered her on tour or at home, she was a very joyful, kind, enthusiastic person, with an almost childlike delight in her own fantastic skills “Look what I am doing !! Isn’t this neat?!!” She obviously loved playing the guitar, and loved helping us, her students, to do it as well as we could.  I saw nothing of the “tortured, suffering, slave to her art” in her – quite the opposite.

There is only one book on Ida Presti, which you yourself were asked to translate. We spoke briefly about how you were disappointed at some of the misinformation contained within the book. Which facts do you feel were inaccurate?

Yes I was very disappointed in how the book turned out, and almost wished that I had had nothing to do with it.  Presti was such an honest person, I really feel it is a betrayal of her memory not to have the most honest and factual book possible.  Not to mention that since this book was done with the collaboration of her daughter, it will certainly be regarded as totally reliable in the future – a very great pity.  I did find the whole depiction of her childhood most interesting and there were a few details that I had not known from talking to her.  And of course there were other bits of information that I did know that were not in the book – but that is no one’s fault.  I would have liked to have had more information about and from her first husband – that is missing and probably for obvious reasons, but none the less it would have been good to know.  There are numerous little details that are probably not worth bothering about.  After Presti’s death, Lagoya tended to exaggerate the numbers of solo concerts her played, and what famous people he played for, and some of that crept into the book as well.  For instance Lagoya maintained that the duo played for Einstein to entertain him at his home.  But unless this happened very early in Presti’s career when Einstein was still living in Switzerland, the dates don’t work out.  Not only do I live in Princeton NJ where Einstein lived, but I was with the duo when they performed here, and was with them during everything they did here in Princeton.  Even that is irrelevant though, since I know they never visited Einstein for the very good reason that by the time they first came to the USA, Einstein had died.  So no way it happened as Lagoya described it.

But the general slant of the book is to depict her as a tragic slave to her art – in emotional and physical pain all the time, and then inadvertently killed by clumsy American doctors while on tour.   I think I have a little insight on why her daughter might have had at least some impression along these lines, while I did not think that way at all.  Imagine a mother leaving her daughter and young son to go on tour numerous times.  What does she say?  What does she write back to them?  Certainly she says how much she will miss them – how sorry she is to leave them – and she writes back many letters telling what she is doing but saying how much she wishes they were there and how very much she misses them.  And of course she did miss them – and certainly they missed her a lot also.  But while they were getting such letters, I was getting very loving sweet enthusiastic letters about how on this next tour, they’d be in New York for more days than usual, and how she was looking forward to that, and how much fun we’d have, and how we’d have time to go sight seeing, and she’d get to hear all my Bach pieces (I was a fanatic Bach lover at the time and played a LOT of Bach in my lessons with her) – and by the way, do let the Shaw agency know when their plane would arrive – etc etc.  Presti actually told me that her daughter Elisabeth was jealous of me.  I also noticed that, although I sent a huge pile of color photocopies of programs and schedules and photos and other information about their USA tours to Elisabeth  – at her request – for use in the book, she used hardly any of it – maybe even none of it at all, if I remember well.  So clearly something is going on here, and certainly our two perspectives on how Presti felt about her concert tours was very different.  The idea that she was hunched over in constant pain from playing the guitar, and could hardly walk, is another thing the book says that makes no sense to me at all.  Not long before her death, I took Presti and Lagoya to the Cloisters Museum in NYC.  The Cloisters is a museum made up of many actual Medaeval cloisters, taken from their European locations and re-assembled near the Hudson River with lovely gardens and many statues and pieces of art on display as they would have been seen originally.  Presti wore very high heels all the time, and we spent several hours wandering all over this large expanse of delightful treasures.  She was fascinated and had a great time, and never showed any signs of tiring or wanting to leave until we had covered all the territory very thoroughly.  Personally I can’t imagine how she managed to walk at all with those high heel shoes on, and for sure if she had been in the shape her daughter describes, she’d never have managed it.

What I can imagine is that she did have some pain from what killed her – almost 100% certainly esophageal cancer.  I have talked to friends in Europe who told me she had gone secretly to specialists in Paris some time before she died, to find out what was wrong.   They also told me that she mentioned to them having a premonition of her own death when her son would be 14 years old – which turned out to be correct.  (The book mentions her having premonitions of other people’s deaths, but not that she had one for herself.)  The whole story in the book of the circumstances of her death in the USA on tour is very slanted and more or less imaginary. The short version of what actually happened is that after their concert in St Louis she started coughing up blood.  They went to the hospital there and they X-rayed her and found nothing – which is exactly what they would have found at that time (pre CAT scan), since the heart would have obscured anything going on with the esophagus in any X-Rays.  The doctors there urged her to stay there for further testing etc, since she was obviously not well at all and suffering from something very serious.  But of course the idea that the show must go on won out, and she and Lagoya left the next morning for their concert in Rochester that evening.  Presti’s condition deteriorated further on the plane, and upon arrival, she was rushed to the very fine teaching hospital there.  But by this time, there was very little that could be done to staunch the interior bleeding that was filling her lungs.  I talked to the doctors who operated on her in Rochester (After Lagoya phoned me that evening, right after she died, with the news and the request to come help, I arrived there the next morning.), and later on to another doctor who specialized specifically in esophageal cancer, and what they all said made it clear that once she was bleeding to that degree, it would have been nearly impossible to keep her alive, no matter how wonderful the doctors were, or how hard they worked.

One of the things that I find most stunning when listening to Presti’s recordings with Alexandre Lagoya is the precise marriage of both guitars. You yourself formed and performed as part of a guitar trio. How difficult is it to achieve this level of togetherness when playing with other guitarists?

Alice Artzt

Well mostly, to be a great duo or trio, you have to be good musicians who are able to be flexible and listen very very sensitively to each other – and then you just have to practice a LOT together.  The fact that Presti was to a large extent Lagoya’s teacher and inspiration, meant that he paid a lot of attention to exactly what she did and wanted him to do and of course it worked marvelously.  I consider it a great credit to Lagoya that he managed to sit on the same stage as Presti, and perform with her, and not look like an idiot.  He worked very very hard to do that.  Very few people, if any at all, could have managed such a feat.

Do you have a favorite recording of Presti’s and if so, why does that recording stand out to you in particular?

I don’t know if I can say what might be a favorite.  I do love the Handel Chaconne they played- and that I also played.  I do love nearly all their baroque recordings, though I do realize that some of the pieces are not played totally in the way a baroque specialist might do.  But they sound wonderful anyway.  Their Spanish music is wonderfully played also.  Really almost everything they did was, in nearly every case, the very best version I have ever heard, performed at a musical and technical level that is unlikely to ever be matched by anyone else.

You are a celebrated artist who has been described in Guitar International Magazine as ‘America’s best player’. What has the career of a classical guitarist been like for you?

I have no idea what to say about that – other than that it has enabled me to make a lot of friends all over the world, and to know geography pretty well.  For instance, how many people do you know who have been to Djibouti (known at the time I was there as the Territoire Francais des Afars et des Issas) – or spent a week in Sanaa, Yemen (way before the various gulf wars made that place better known), or played in a very cold hall in Cuzco Peru, or performed in the huge gold pagoda-like Sun Yat Sen Memorial Hall in Taipei?  Going to so many different places, and talking to people all over the world, really gives one a different perspective on many things, in including a lot that is going on the the USA these days.

What is it that drew you to the classical guitar and what do you love about the instrument?

Why does one fall in love with anyone or anything?  I loved the sound and I loved the feel of playing the guitar.  I loved that I could play so much wonderful music and didn’t need anyone else helping me, or accompanying me, to be able to play whole complicated pieces.   I had played the piano since age 6 or so, and was not an enthusiast, though it was clear to my parents and teachers that I was musical.  Then my parents got me a flute thinking that might be more fun for me since I could play in orchestras and bands, and it was – but still was not what I wanted to do.  They I sort of discovered the guitar and became a fanatic overnight, and started practicing my head off.  I’d go to my flute lessons and tell my flute teacher all the great things I was doing on the guitar.  Poor thing – she kept giving me really nice pieces to play on the flute to try to get me more interested, but it didn’t work.

You studied under Ida Presti, Alexandre Lagoya and Julian Bream. As someone who teaches now herself, what are the most important lessons for young musicians looking to enter the classical music business today?

Listen to other really good musicians – on any instrument or in orchestras etc – playing any music you are interested in. Try to analyze what they are doing.  Listen to several performers playing the same piece, and figure out why some versions are better than others.  And when you practice yourself, practice LOUDLY and SLOWLY – and do everything totally correctly right from the start.  “There are no unimportant notes!!”  Also get a good, rounded liberal arts education – particularly languages.  If I had not been lucky enough to have been fluent in French, I would not have had the chance to get to know Presti as I did.  Even my not so good German and Portuguese and Spanish have been extremely useful throughout my career, and anything I have learned about anatomy, and physics and acoustics, not to mention history, enters into my thinking and teaching as well.

Finally, I hear that you are a huge fan of (and somewhat of an expert on) Charlie Chaplin. Where did this fascination come from?

Again why does one fall in love?  The first Chaplin film I saw was Modern Times during a Chaplin festival in NYC, and I was hooked.  After that I went back to see every other film in the series that they were showing, and then managed to buy video copies of anything I could find that I had not seen.  From that I went on to do more research and to meet others who were involved with restoring or working on various Chaplin projects – wrote some articles etc.   I think it was his virtuosity, and the complexity of his humor – and his charisma – that attracted me so much.

Final thoughts

The subject of Ida Presti is something that we will endeavour to come back to in future posts, for the simple reason that it is essential that more information on her life is available to the general public. It’s imperative that she is not forgotten.

To leave you with today, I am adding a video of Alice Artzt teaching the Ida Presti guitar technique. To view her other teaching videos, please visit http://www.youtube.com/user/Guitartzt.

Enjoy!

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