An interdependent relationship

The Montes-Kircher Duo in conversation with Colin Cooper

Classical Guitar March 1990

How do two guitarist become a good duo? Alfonso Montes and Irina Kircher are very good soloists in their own right; together they make a very good duo. It doesn’t always happen. They are married to each other, which may help. But there is something there, something indefinable which gives an extra dimension to their playing.In Inverness they gave a duo recital, in St. Andrews Cathedral in front of a crowd that was not nearly big enough. Later in the week they gave the first performance of Alfonso’s new concerto for two guitars and orchestra, in the Eden Court Theatre with the Orchestra of St. John Smith Square conducted by John Lubbock, and lo! The audience increased by a factor of about 9. An audience clearly prefers an orchestral concert to an instrumental recital, which shouldn’t surprise anyone. But, equally clearly, it is not the fault of the guitar that audiences tend towards the small: to believe that is to adopt the philosophy of the admen, the promoters, the cats who get fat by tailoring the product to the demand. Artists have other goals, and that is what makes them artists.

This tricky business of playing together: what did it take ? Said Irina: ‘It’s not enough for two professional guitarists to get together and to play together. There must be a personal thing about it; at least a friendship, an understanding which goes beyond saying “Listen, we play piano here, we play forte there.” It goes beyond that.’

Playing together and living together were the same thing: you had to work at it, you had to practice every day. And you had to share a lot. Alfonso gave a practical example. ‘You can play together with a metronome, but good musical partners must feel it together; there is no metronome. But it is still together, though in a very different way. ‘A matter, he mantained, more of conviction than of measurement.

Irina: I don’t think there is a recipe for becoming a good duo. If you are a good guitarist and you get together with somebody, I think it will be time and experience that will turn you into a duo.

Alfonso: ‘Yes, and to allow this chemistry to work, to allow this tacit understanding which is needed, to be flexible with tempos and still keep together, and so on, one needs luck, I think! It’s something to do with the individual and the ability to mix with another individual.’

You don’t have to be married; you don’t have to be brothers or brothers and sister or father and son or mother and son or mother and daughter, but you have to find the right partners. Nevertheless it did help, they both agreed, if there was a close relationship-especially when it came to practicalities.

We were talking basically about the problems of playing together as professionals, but Alfonso and Irina stressed that when it came to teaching amateurs, there was no difference in their approach. ‘ The difference is in the results, in what is produces,’ said Alfonso. Some duos might become so good that they decided to try to make their living from playing; others, while remaining amateurs, might have a lot to say to many so-called ‘professionals’.

An old question came up here: Who did they play for? Themselves? The composer? The audience? The critics, God forbid? Alfonso had strong views about this. ‘ I do believe that this is an interdependent relationship. Composer, performer and audience. A piece is not born, so far as I am concerned, until it is shared by all three. It is the performer’s job to be the medium between composer and audience, but that medium needs to be involved as well. That is needed for the piece to become absolutely alive.’ The composer needs the performer, and a valid performance must have an audience. Only then did the work become a valid piece of music.

Irina agreed. ‘Sometimes I think a performer could even change something after having played for an audience.’ Antonio Lauro had done that. He had written a piece for Alfonso and Irina, they played it for him, they had some arguments about the rhythm, and eventually, some two years later, he came to a different conclusion about it. ‘He told us that it was through listening to our playing that he decided to change the rhythm.’, said Alfonso. Oyvind Lyslo as well. We have been lucky enough to work with composers who have been close enough to us to have a very honest relationship, so that we have been able to talk very openly about what we feel about the music without having to be too diplomatic or too polite. We have been very sensitive to other composers ideas, but it doesn’t mean that we couldn’t make a few little suggestions. ‘The composers had taken it well; sometimes they liked it, sometimes they did not, but they conceded that a point had been made.

The Duo had played a new work by Glasgow composer and guitarist Peter Stewart, the Suite ‘Hacerse Amigos’. The title means ‘making friends’, and Alfonso and Irina certainly know how to do that. They learned the piece virtually in front of the composer. Then they had taken it to Germany and played it in public, afterwards realizing that there were things which could be changed with profit. Peter agreed to a try-out, and the public’s new reaction was entirely different.

Alfonso: ‘This was a five-movement suite; its main quality was lyricism, all the way through. But we felt strongly that somehow it was too long…

Irina:’… And the third and forth movements were both rather slow. On top of that, you had to change the tuning from E to D. Somehow we felt that the public was loosing attention. There was too much of the same kind of mood. I think that is a very important aspect of programming- a fast piece, then maybe a slow piece. Contrasts are very very important. After we had agreed with the composer to take out one movement, all of a sudden the public paid a lot more attention. It was like coming from night to day!’

Alfonso:’…And the piece has been really successful. ’There had been a very warm reception in a packed St. George’s, Bristol, for example. They had played it again in Inverness, but a smallish audience and a chilly cathedral had not revealed the work in its warmest colours.

Alfonso and Irina have worked with a number of composers, and they mention Marcela Rodriguez. One of Mexico’s leading young composers, she has written a couple of pieces for the Duo. She has strong ideas, say Alfonso and Irina, and they consider themselves fortunate to be in a position to discuss problems- about texture, for instance- with her in a context of freedom.

This was not so much a musical feeling as what Alfonso called a ‘people’ feeling: ‘ You know to whom you can talk. Or you should know. ‘ By the same token, there were composers to whom he would say a word and would simply play their pieces- or not play their pieces, as the case might be.

One thing should never be done, and that is to change without consultation what the composer had written. As a composer himself, Alfonso Montes felt strongly that if performers did not like the whole work, then they should not do it at all. Whatever was played had to be played with the approval of the composer.

John Duarte has written a concerto for Alfonso and Irina, not yet performed. Another composer with whom they can claim a special relationship was, of course, Antonio Lauro, who was born in Ciudad Bolivar, the city where Alfonso was born 38 years later in 1955. I was very lucky to have his friendship in a very special way. My very first professional concert as a soloist in Venezuela, in 1980, was attended by Lauro, and most of my programme consisted of his guitar pieces. Then Irina went to Caracas…’Irina worked with Lauro for one and a half years, and remembers with particular affection the time she spent with him. It ended when he became ill and had to stop teaching at the conservartory.

Thinking about Lauro produced a certain amount of melancholy in Alfonso. The special relationship had included things not connected with the guitar or even with music. Alfonso’s parents, for instance, once hired a plane and took Lauro up for an aerial view of the jungle in the south of Venezuela. It created a certain rapport, said Alfonso. There was I, sitting in the plane beside Lauro, looking at this fantastic jungle, and he was thinking of music all the time. All those minor 9th, all those rapid arpeggios- they were all there in the waterfalls! It did give me an insight into Lauro’s imagination and musical thinking. But it was not orthodox; it was not the kind of thing he was teaching at the Conservatory.’

Alfonso counted it his great fortune to have been through all Lauro’s music with the composer himself, having certain things explained and made clear.

What sort of things? ‘Tempos and nuances,’ said Alfonso. ‘I feel very fortunate. I mean, we were called the ‘Duo Antonio Lauro’ to begin with. ‘ Because of legal problems, they had to drop that title, and are now known as the Montes-Kircher Duo, but the strength of the Lauro connection is still there, unabated. As well as the melancholy, there was a great happiness in their recollection.

The Norwegian composer Oyvind Lyslo, who wrote ‘Towards Winter’ for them and who is the godfather of their son Igor, is another composer with whom they had a special relationship. They had always met in the summer. At Cannington, and ‘Towards winter’ (‘Mot ein vinter’) is a remembrance of that summer meeting when the snow starts to fall in Norway. (The first movement is recorded on Vesk-Norsk VNP 0086-11; the second movement written later, has not yet been recorded).

Steve Marsh, from England, had dedicated a piece to them, his ‘Homage to Paco de Lucia’. And there were other composers who had been motivated through hearing the Duo play, among them Peter Stewart, whose suite ‘Hacerse Amigos’ had been performed during the Royal Bank of Scotland Guitar Festival in Inverness only a few days previously. ‘ We are delighted’, said Alfonso. – honoured. It helps.’ Alfonso’s own suite ‘Lugares’ had been performed by them alongside Peter Stewart’s piece during the same festival.

Alfonso and Irina do not teach on any regular basis, but earn their living virtually entirely from the concerts that they give around the world. It meant that they could not afford to ignore the taste of their audiences. At the same time, there was their own taste to be taken into consideration. ‘Of course there must be a compromise of both elements,’ said Alfonso, ‘otherwise we wouldn’t have the money to live to eat! There are places where we have to play some standard repertoire- because they ask for it. Especially in Germany, where you almost get told what they want you to play.

That in itself brought problems connected with artistic integrity; true artists could not very well play something that they did not particularly want to play; it made them good professionals, but obviously detracted from any impact their artistry might make in a live performance. There was always that element of compromise.

Similarly, there were places where they did not play the very contemporary music of composers like Marcela Rodriguez, simply because the tradition did not exist there. ‘Concerts of music are strictly related to the economic and social aspects of life, ‘Alfonso said. If you ignored that fact and gave your audience music that they did not understand or you felt they ought to hear, then a guitar festival was in danger of becoming a private club, with only the 25 members attending your recital. ‘ If you are aiming to involve the whole community, then you must deliver something which is possible.

Always, too, one had to develop the traditions that existed, and to create an interest not only for the guitar but for other instruments, other music. It was an unusually serious and responsible attitude for performing guitarists to take , and one that I find attractive, besieged almost daily as I am by concert-givers whose only idea seems to be to play some pretty music and to hope for the best. A public performance is, or ought to be, more serious than that. I hope that doesn’t sound too pompous. Thoughtful listeners will perhaps know what I mean. The guitar must hold on to its audience and find more support among general music lovers if it is to prosper. We do not want to keep it in some exclusive church presided over by a handful of high priests. On the other hand, if it is downgraded to meet the requirements of the Lowest intelligent person devoting a lifetime to the instrument. Alfonso Montes and Irina Kircher seem to be doing good work in both directions, which must be a tricky task. They play modern music, yes, but it is accessible music; you do not have to have a B.Mus: in order to enjoy it. A pair of normal ears will suffice. But there is sufficient novelty in what they play to stimulate a natural curiosity, and that means that the intelligent listener will want to know more- not only about the composer and the performer, about the guitar itself and its whole repertoire. That means going to more concerts and buying more records. It could also mean buying a guitar and having a go themselves, which would be even better.