Boston GuitarFest celebrates the rich tradition of Spanish classical guitar

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It takes only four unresolved chords dancing across the strings of a classical guitar to evoke an entire nation’s history and tradition. In the words of the renowned classical guitarist Eliot Fisk, “You hear those four chords, you’re not going to think of anything but Spain.”

These lingering notes are the star of Fisk’s Boston GuitarFest XI, called “¡Viva España!” The festival is currently in full swing until June 19. It features youth workshops, competitions and performances. The theme is what Artistic Director Fisk describes as “the agony and ecstasy of the Spanish experience.”

It would seem the stars aligned for the theme in 2016, since this year marks significant anniversaries in the history of Spanish arts: the 140th anniversary of composer Manuel de Falla’s birth, the 100th anniversary of composer Enrique Granados’s death, and the 80th anniversary of poet Federico Garcia Lorca’s death. These artists, whom Fisk hails as “quintessentially Spanish,” clearly encompassed the Spanish agony and ecstasy through their lives and music.

“The country — because of its climate, because of its history because of so many things — the country kind of breeds a certain kind of incredibly passionate art,” Fisk said. “…the constant juxtaposition of opposites, I think, has really bred into the culture.”

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Fisk points to the Spanish Civil War and the country’s tumultuous religious history, in addition to Granados’s and Lorca’s tragic and heroic deaths, to illustrate the dark side of Spain’s culture. In spite of these hardships, the collective and contrasting passions contribute to the country’s vibrancy. Both are also evident in the uniquely dynamic sound of their classical guitar music.

“There’s enough agony and ecstasy in the history of the culture that’s worked its way into the music,” Fisk said.

“¡Viva España!” will especially demonstrate this concept with the June 16 performance, “Echoes of Spain.” In addition to guitarists Adam Levin and Zaira Meneses, the show will feature an actress performing a small scene from a play by Federico Garcia Lorca. Other concerts will include the Boston Guitar Orchestra, flamenco dancer Grisha Goryachev, guitarist Joaquín Clerch, members of A Far Cry, as well as performances by Fisk.

“I wanted to do with this festival something really different,” he said. “There are many, many guitar festivals in the world that basically line up a whole bunch of guitars and have the same two guitarists playing every single night. We wanted to do something much more cross-disciplinary, cross-cultural.”

The celebration of the classical guitar’s rich history is largely made possible by a legacy from the late Spanish classical guitarist, Andrés Segovia. Fisk, who was Segovia’s last individual pupil, admires his virtuoso teacher’s wide repertoire, which stretched over five centuries of music.

“We are really looking at the most intimate thoughts of some of the most extraordinary people who lived during the past five centuries,” Fisk said. “When we try to get inside the head and spirit and mind of Bach, for example, this elevates us because we are aspiring to a higher level of existence, a higher level of spirituality, a higher level of intellectual achievement, a higher level of sensitivity, and a greater cerebral capacity… It’s a constant effort to stretch the capacity of the human being into new realms of new possibilities. It’s a spiritual quest; it’s a constant effort toward self-improvement.”

These inspired compositions are brought to their full potential when a guitarist creates animated music with his instrument. According to Fisk, this artistry is what made Segovia’s classical guitar so special: “He made the instrument sing.”

“He did not go for necessarily the most efficient, mechanical way of playing a phrase, but he would always make the fingering, the motions… expressive of the music, so that the fingers were dancing, so that the 10 fingers are really like a ballet company. So, you have two ballet companies that have to be totally synchronized, the men lifting the women, playing different roles… You have the same thing with the two hands of guitar and each finger. The fingers need to have the independence of individual ballet dancers, and that takes an unbelievable amount of work.”

Countless variations of the four Spanish chords, played in a dancing and singing fashion, were passed down from Segovia to Fisk, then from Fisk to his own pupils, and eventually to the Boston GuitarFest through ¡Viva España! When the guitarists’ hands finally rest, the music continues to reverberate in Jordan Hall — unresolved, full of passion and meaning.

“It just stops, but the pain doesn’t stop,” he said. “The feeling doesn’t stop.”

For more information and tickets for “¡Viva España!, visit the Boston GuitarFest webpage.