The Montes/ Kircher guitar Duo

A twentieth anniversary interview by Steve Marsh

Classical Guitar August 2004

In November last year I was invited to spend a few days with the Alfonso Montes/ Irina Kircher Guitar Duo at their home in Stuttgart to interview them about their 20 years as one of the top guitar duos. The interview was conducted during meals, strolling through the black forest, walking around Stuttgart in the evening and relaxing late into the night. Topics discussed ranged from the political situation in Venezuela, their diplomatic service and their roles in the Stuttgart School of Music through to their concert careers , Alfonso’s appearance on John Williams’s Venezuelan Guitar Music CD, Irina solo works and the duo’s recordings and future projects.

The husband and wife partnership of Alfonso Montes (born 1955 in Ciudad Bolivar, Venezuela) and Irina Kircher (born 1966 in Stuttgart, Germany) began performing together as a Duo since 1983, making their debut at the Ateneo de Caracas in Venezuela the following year.

Twenty years, what does that mean to you?

Irina Kircher: We do not think that anniversaries as such are the important point. What really counts is the sustained contribution one makes to society in one’s working field.

How is today different from the time when you started?

IK: The internet and the development of notation software, as well as other methods for producing and marketing compact discs, has had a great impact on the music industry. We have seen the flourishing of many small publishing houses and record labels that have readily made available compositions which may not otherwise have emerged. That has enriched the spectrum of possibilities for players and public alike.

Alfonso Montes
: Regarding players, the technical level is elevating at ‘laser speed’ and the overall preparation of music students is getting better.

Arts sponsorship and support has declined from government sources due to a world trend for politicians and bureaucrats putting cultural activities in the hands of private entrepreneurs who might equally organize a boxing match or a concert. Surely , when that happens the guitar concert, with all its beauty and poetic feel, gets knocked out. There are fewer possibilities for up and coming guitarists. The trend is to do things in a ‘mega’ way and that goes against the very nature of the guitar. Still, there are always some people who run festivals, concert series and competitions better than ever before and those of us lucky enough to be part of that scene enjoy the best events ever organized for the guitar.

Tell me about your first appearance as a duo in the UK.

AM: We met a what used to be the Cannington International Summer School in Somerset in 1982. I was one of the tutors and Irina had come as a guest. Two years later, we began to play concerts together. We went on teaching and playing every year at Cannington until 1990, when we decided to call it a day.

Having been a student in London for many years I already had good contacts, one of which was the late Chris Kilvington.

: He was helping to run a festival in Inverness around 1988. The organisers wanted Alfonso to write a double guitar concerto, which became the Fantasia for Two Guitars and Orchestra. This commission launched Alfonso’s career as a composer, although he had been composing music from an early age.

: We recorded the Fantasia with the Caracas Sinfonieta in Venezuela, and that brought a new commission from the Orquesta Sinfonica de Venezuela to mark their 60th anniversary. That in turn led to the Music for the Venezuelan pavilion in the Seville World Expo in 1992 and it has gone on since with non-stop commissions for film, theatre, documentaries, concert pieces and so on. The last premiere was in September 2003 with the Berlin Symphony Orchestra at the Philharmonie in Berlin, a big work for Orchestra and narrator. Die Reise (The Trip). We are currently working on the DVD.

Is this before you move to London?

: Yes. Alfonso always had this urge to serve his country. It was getting difficult to live from concerts, since you can’t do all the touring and so on and expect to leave the children at home. Then, in 1992, he was proposed for the job as cultural attaché for Venezuela.

: The Bolivar Hall series of guitar concerts came about when I came to London as cultural attaché. I got in touch with Maurice Summerfield to discuss beginning a guitar series at the Bolivar Hall, a little bit like the Wigmore Hall series back in the 1980s. That is how the whole thing began, with the cooperation of Classical Guitar magazine and the Venezuelan Embassy.

Did you compose and play during the diplomatic years in London?

AM: Yes in London, in Bonn, in Caracas wherever, I never stop writing.

We are always prepared to play concerts. We still practice every day. We do not know any other way of living but working hard. As soon as we got to Venezuela, Irina was appointed guitar lecturer and she also taught aural training and chamber music at the music university in Caracas. It never mattered that she had to be with me attending all those diplomatic receptions and so on, next morning there she was at seven o’clock at the university, teaching, and there I was, composing.

: In 1995 we went to live in Bonn where Alfonso was also cultural attaché for three years, but we still played concerts.

: In 1998 I was promoted as Director of International Culture Co-operation for the Ministry of Culture and I resigned at the beginning of 2001, convinced that I could no longer serve my country.

Why did you resign? Was that a political gesture or pressure of playing concerts or what?

AM: Concerts have never been a pressure for us. It was purely political. In 1999, Chavez came to power in Venezuela. As far as I was concerned I was a civil servant and did not expect to do anything different to what I had been doing. But very quickly I realized that these people had come to power with a hidden agenda of establishing a kind of fascist, dictatorial regime. I felt it was becoming impossible for me to remain at my post or even in the country. It was a very dangerous situation, so I spoke to Irina and told her we must carefully escape.

Was that when you came to Stuttart?

: Yes I came in the summer of 2000 and Alfonso joined me at Christmas . But we have been very lucky, and lots of people helped us. For instance, we were engaged immediately in 2001 for concerts in the US where we played at the Miami Beach Festival and also with the Florida Chamber players. Later I went on a tour of Latin America with Berlin Symphony Orchestra, where I played Alfonso’s Concertino and the Giuliani concerto. Guess where the first stop of the tour was. Venezuela! Then Argentine, Uruguay, Mexico, Brazil and Berlin. There I was, after many years, travelling as a German citizen and no longer as the wife of a Venezuelan diplomat.

: We came to Irina’s hometown, Stuttgart, where we are now active at the Musikschule. Venezuela has become a terrorist state. It is a complete disaster.

Wasn’t one of your pieces removed from a competition by “higher” forces?

: In the Alirio Diaz competition, they appointed a committee to organize the event. They wanted to include a composition by a Venezuelan guitarist/composer and chose a piece of mine. I think it was Suite Evocacion. So they got in touch with me to ask permission to use this piece and to get the details for the publishing house and so on. A month later, a student called me to say that he had noticed that on the internet the piece was no longer included in the set list. I called the president of the competition and he admitted that, because of “superior orders”, the piece had been removed. This sort of thing happens all the time. It makes me feel pity for the people who need to impose those measures and for the people who accept being treated that way.

How do you go about planning concert tours? What about the practicalities when working with orchestras?

: The work with different agencies throughout various regions and generally the orchestral work is being done through an agency in Berlin. This agency has taken me on as a composer, that’s why they commissioned this work we mentioned before for narrator and orchestra. With the duo, there is someone in Venezuela who works for us who covers the whole of Latin America and North America as well. Here in Germany we take care of that side of it ourselves.

You say that you are now in a fortunate position to be able to pick and choose where and when you perform. Being involved in the Stuttgart Conservatory has presumably helped you reach that status. Hoe did that happen?

: It was in the summer of 2001. There was a lot of competition for the post but I got the job as head of the guitar department at the conservatory here in Stuttgart. The conservatory is quite big, around 5000 students all together with 400 guitar students and 20 guitar teachers.

: Irina is the boss of the guitar department. Both of us teach there and, besides the regular students, we also instruct the especially talented ones. We prepare students for competitions and organize four to five concerts a year and all the students have to play.

Is that compulsory?

: Is is not compulsory to take part in all of them but there is one compulsory concert each year. We will soon be concentrating on 20th and 21st century guitar music; last year it was the music of Sor. The year before that, we organized a guitar marathon.

: There were 200 guitarists playing twelve hours continuously for a charity. That was fun. It also included all the guitar teachers at the conservatory playing Electric Counterpoint by Steve Reich.

When you compose for guitar, do you write with you and Irina in mind? I mean, do you write with your particular technical strength or does that not come into it?

: Sometimes he does. For example, when I think about the Concertino, that piece was written for me and there are some technical aspects in that piece which you could say were tailormade for me.

: There is a passage where I had an idea from Irina’s ability to play trills with four fingers across two strings, a kind of tremolo effect. She plays it so fast that she can literally play one thousand notes per minute.

Is that a technique you thought of yourself?

: No. Maybe you know the piece El Abejorro? It was written to be played p-i-m-i in the original. I think it was Narciso Yepes who played that piece with p-a-m-i. I played that piece for a long time and used to really race through it, just going for speed and somehow from there, working together with a Norwegian friend, Oyvind Lyslo, came this trill between the two notes. Alfonso heard me playing this technique and asked me how long I could keep this going and I told him :’Forever!’ In Alfonso’s piece there is a passage that lasts for two minutes and it has one thousand notes a minute.

: Obviously I do know our strength as a duo. If you want to separate two great differences between us, it is that in Irina you will find a lot of speed and fluency in fast moving passages while I find density in the sound to fit the music together.

I am obsessed by rhythm, because of my heritage, and I know I can write very complicated rhythms that are very effective on the guitar, especially when with crossrhythms on two guitars. I feel an immense liberty and freedom in doing this. Anything I write, of whatever difficulty, I can put in front of her and she plays it.

So you have all that freedom to write virtually anything then?

: Yes, whatever I have a need to write until now I have done it.

We are also blessed that wherever we go we always find interesting people who are writing new music and they show us what they are doing and any new technique they are using. We are both well informed, we read all the guitar magazines and we buy a lot of music and CD’. We are always leaning.

You used to present a guitar programme for Venezuelan radio. Is that still running?

: Oh yes. I present a weekly half-hour guitar programme that I have been doing for 18 years.

How does that work from a practical point of view now that you no longer live there?

AM: Wherever I have been living I have always sent the tapes by post but now it is much better as I have a proper recording studio in my basement and everything is prepared there and sent by email. The show makes me listen to a lot of guitar music. It helps me find out who is doing what. After all these years, I am still very curious.

Back to the duo. It obviously helps being married and spending an enormous amount of time not only practicing together but also living together and knowing each other’s personal emotions very well.

Yes, as a married couple you are perhaps a little less apprehensive about sharing your emotions with your playing partner. Playing together can obviously achieve the musical co-ordination required for a very good duo, but as far as we are concerned, phenomen such as Presti/Lagoya happened because of love. We like to think we are like that, without wanting to say that we are as good as they were. We don’t do this because we simply both play the guitar. It is because of our love for each other and our love for the guitar. We have made this our life project.

You told me once that your attitude towards performing in public is that you always think of every concert as being like your first and last concert. We’ve all been to concerts, not just guitar concerts, where the performer seems to be just going through the motions, almost on automatic pilot. Everything can be played well but the audience doesn’t walk away with anything afterwards, emotionally speaking. If everyone played as if it were his or her last concert, there would surely be a different emotional charge.

And that’s not theoretical, it could very well be the last concert! I have learned in life that you hardly know when things are going to end. Life is so weird and has many surprises.

You have both performed a lot with orchestra and quite successfully too. Is rehearsal time a problem on these occasions?

This is always a disappointing aspect of performing with an orchestra. The rehearsals are limited to two or three at the most, sometimes it has been one general rehearsal and then that’s it, you have to perform. This is a sad fact, a soloist prepares a concerto for a long time, you dedicate yourself to the music, you think about it for a long time and then you come along to the rehearsal and the orchestra wants to get everything done in around half an hour. Those are the hard facts of life.

Luckily we have maintained relations with particular orchestras throughout the years and we have done the same pieces throughout. We have worked for many years with the Berlin Symphony Orchestra, so we know each other and there is a trust. That is important because between the guitar world and the orchestral world there is a lot of mistrust. We frequently hear: ’Oh! It was a disaster with this and that player.’ A lot of this has to do with rhythm and the fact that you have to pluck and you have no sustain, so the sense of rhythm in guitarists is really peculiar; sometimes very good and neat, the best as it can be, but it is different to other musicians. Some orchestras are just not used to such articulation.

You get an occasional surprise. Once, in Poland, I had sent the scores in advance but they never arrived so we took the music with us in the plane. We landed on the day of the concert, distributed the music to the orchestra and , from the one rehearsal we had in the afternoon, we performed the piece that night. We could have recorded it! That is the one time I remember something like that happening. It was a particularly good orchestra, the orchestra of the Conservatory of Warsaw. It was one of those occasions where everything worked perfectly.

That also shows us an aspect of technique which guitarists are generally poor at: sight-reading. For an orchestra to have so little time to prepare a piece and still come up with the goods is remarkable compared to what most guitarists would achieve in such a short time.

I am not so much against guitarist’s inability in this field because I know we are dealing most of the time with two or three voices if not more when we play those blocks of chords, and I know that most of theses orchestral guys are dealing the majority of the time with just single lines. I have seen the world’s greatest musicians sightread, and OK, they read very well, but the guitar has this peculiarity, you are dealing with far more information than most players in an orchestra.

Do you think conductors and members of the orchestra appreciate this difficulty?

No, I think the majority have this concept of the guitar as an instrument that is difficult to play well, lacks clarity, rhythm and fluency. I don’t think they have ever considered the difficulties involved in reading a guitar part.

This brings me neatly around to one of my bugbears in the teaching of guitar at the start. I’ve read through a great deal of guitar tutor books over the years and have to come across a decent one which concentrates far longer at the start on single line production. More often than not, intervals and chordal work is introduced early on giving the student the technical problems of stretches and articulation in bass and melody. That detracts from any sense of phrasing, colour and so on. In my own teaching I try and establish a sense of legato in phrasing single-line tunes for a long time and am writing a guitar tutor where the entire first volume concentrates on just melody.

I will buy the first copy! I know in the early stages of learning, a lot of guitarists don’t talk about colouring, articulation and this kind of thing but teaching young people is about building confidence and learning to organize structures. All we are talking about are elements to achieve this overall goal. We, as guitarists, are in a world of our own and we need to be more interrelated with other aspects of music. In our conservatory we are promoting more interaction between the guitar and melodic instruments. I love the guitar and I think that it is as valid an instrument as any other. When people-professors and the like- look down on it, what you really have is the most conservative and uninteresting people in front of you. Really and truly, I do not take any notice of them.

You have recently been involved in a recording with John Williams on his latest CD made up entirely of music from Venezuela. How did that come about?

I grew up admiring John Williams so much because he’s a genius. I have always respected him, not only because of his playing but also because I have always perceived him to be a very socially-minded person and that goes very much with the way I feel. He has always been ready to contribute to any charity in which cause he believes in. I admire immensely someone of that stature who is ready to give.

John Williams has always been curious about music; he has gone from the most experimental things to ethnic music, for instance, I remember having a lot of pleasure hearing him play with Sky in the 1980’s. Perhaps when I listen to it now I think maybe it was not that fantastic but, at the time, it had an energy. For me, it meant here is a guy who can play the guitar like an angel but is not a stiff Royal College guitarist.

And I have always had a soft spot there because he has always liked Venezuelan music. He has, all his life, played music by Antonio Lauro and has admired Alirio Diaz. I remember sitting in a concert , I think it was the Royal Festival Hall, and being completely surprised by having John sitting next to us listening to Diaz playing. As a diplomat, I proposed him for an award from the Venezuelan government in 1992 for his contribution to the promotion of Venezuelan music.

We have stayed in contact for years. He brought Lauro to the Wigmore Hall in the 1980s and gave me a recording of that concert, which is now a document of Venezuelan culture. We kept in touch over the years until Peter Hamilton, editor of Caroni music, arranged brought Irina, myself and John together at his castle in Arcangues. We were there to sift through lots of Venezuelan music, some of which we had been proofreading before they came out in publication. We played for two days and all we did was cook, eat, and play Venezuelan guitar music. John heard my Preludio de Adios and he liked the piece very much so he decided to include it on the CD.

It comes at the very end of the programme on the recording and that must make you feel very proud. You also play cuatro on four of the tracks. Was that planed or was it a spontaneous decision?

John was looking for a cuatro player for several of the tracks on the recording and wanted my help to find someone. Well, I have played this instrument since I was four years old and told him that I could do it, which pleased him very much. We rehearsed once in London and then, two weeks later, I went back and we recorded it. The recording was done literally in minutes because he can play so well, he can play anything just the once and then it’s recorded. Still, he is very demanding on himself, he doesn’t take things easy and he does a lot of rehearsing and research. Some of the music on the recording is amazingly difficult and only brilliant people like John will be able to play it. The fact that he has recorded my Preludio is a dream come true.

Were you asked to offer any advice on the complex rhythms and phrasing in this music or did he not need that? Was it instinctive?

John began listening to this music in the 1950s so he’s been “cooking” this for such a long time; he knew the styles from listening to Diaz playing. He always took a lot of notice of what we were doing and he would ask: ’How do you play this?’ or ‘What is the tempo?’ He is very open to advice. We talked about the character, the background, whether it was a sacred piece or a festive one. It is a great thing that such a great artist put this compilation together.

I don’t think many people in the world know as much about Venezuelan music as he does now. He has all sort of books, and the amount of information he put together in order to play and record this music has made him an expert in this field. This is typical of the way he approaches new programmes. I think he is very much aware that whatever he does has to be absolutely the best. Without that attitude, you don’t get to be on top of the world.

You must feel very satislied to have been involved in this project.

Oh yes! Besides being a huge pleasure to sit there and play with someone who is a hero for you, I am very proud to have taken part in a recording that must go down as one of the great historical events for Venezuelan music ever. This was, without a doubt, one of the highlights of my musical life.

Over your joint careers you have made over 18 recordings. What plans do you have for future releases?

There is a composer, Alexis Rago, who was born in Venezuela but has been living in England for the last 40 years and is now in Monaco. He has written a lot of guitar music since we got to know each other in 1992, more than two hours of guitar music including duets, solos and a concerto, all written specifically for us. We have been working on this music for several years already and now we are going to make a recording of our favourites. Alexis is a pianist but he does write rather well for the guitar.

What kind of style are we talking about here? Is it South American biased?

No, it is more late Romantic, central European. In September I recorded his guitar concerto with the Berlin Symphony Orchestra and then we recorded a solo each and several duets. It is a whole CD of his music and is completely new for the guitar. Every one is a premiere! He is not well known as a guitar composer so it is interesting to inspire somebody like that to write such a large output of guitar music. It has always been extremely important to us to either encourage composers to compose new repertoire for the guitar or compose ourselves or do arrangements.

Another very important relationship in this respect is Ulrich Wedlich, a German composer, who has written lots of material for us as well. As a matter of fact, our 10th anniversary CD El cielo que esta featured a large work which he wrote for us, and is the title of the CD. We are just now working on a new piece of his for our 20th anniversary CD.

And this has been a long-time relationship. Ulrich and I studied together in Stuttgart at the university and we have known each other for maybe 30 years or so. We have had a working relationship with him for the last 20 years and he is one of the first who listens to any new works we are producing.

Which brings us to another relationship we have had throughout our musical lives which is our friendship with you. You have always been there to listen to our material, you know what we have done, we have recorded your music and we are about to record your Clumber Rain on our 20th anniversary CD.

Somebody else very important to us in our lives was Chris Kilvington. We used to talk a lot about our compositions and our repertoire. We were always in close contact with him and shared many ideas not only about composing and guitar playing but also the promotion of the guitar.

We know now that we are in the ideal time in our lives to document more or less everything we have played, so the next ten years are going to be devoted to a project to record our entire duo repertoire we have performed over the years.

Is this all your original compositions and arrangements?

Not only our music but everything we have played in our repertoire. The priority at the moment is to make a recording a year, release a new CD every year for the next ten years. This will go together with our pedagogic programme, as we have a responsibility at the conservatory.

Could you tell me about these unique guitars you play?

For the last 14 years we have been using the innovative creation from guitar maker Walter J Vogt. That is a guitar that is tuneable exactly to tempered scale; it remains, of course, tuneable to any other desired intervals with equal accuracy.

Ever since guitars have been built, numerous attempts to overcome the inaccuracies of the traditional scaling by means of computation and fretboard modifications have been tried and failed.

Walter Vogt succeded in designing a fret board on which all 110 to 120 semitones can be set individually. Just before he died in 1990, he accomplished a perfect system for accurate tempered tuning.

It becomes immediately audible that instruments thus accurately tuned to tempered scale sound richer and hold a sound longer than those with standard scaling and fixed frets. So we do not have a tuning problem and we feel very good about it.

Without any doubts you are very successful. What do you think is the secret?

Although we have a professional partnership as a guitar duo, we still have individuality and I think that is the key. With Irina’s playing and my writing, we are complementary. I have never felt threatened or jealous or anything by Irina’s amazing ability to play the guitar because I didn’t marry a guitarist, I married a woman! Sometimes people ask things like: ’Is she better than you?’

Which is a pretty stupid question

You would be amazed how many people want to know that. They do not know the things that we both do better than the other. And they will not; it is classified information!

I always liken it to our cooking, which we are both very interested in. I always say: ’Look, we are a great team because I know that Irina will always cut the onions and I cut the peppers or the meat or whatever, simply because Irina wears contact lenses and she doesn’t cry when she cuts the onions! So why not take the best of each individual and use it.’ And this is exactly what happens with the duo. We are mature enough as to take the best of each one and put it to the service of the music. Or is the first violin better than the first double bass?