World renowned classical guitarist Jason Vieaux has vivid memories of his first instrument.
“My mother bought me a guitar when I was 5 years old,” he said during a telephone interview from New York on Wednesday morning. “It happened to be a three-quarter size classical guitar.”
Mary Jane Vieaux saw a strong musical aptitude in her son, whose favorite pastime was listening to the family’s collection of modern jazz, R&B and rock ’n’ roll records. From an early age Vieaux could pick out musical lines in the songs he heard.
“From the time I was 3 or 4 I was singing harmony parts, or drum fills, stuff that’s in the music. I think she knew I had a really good ear, and she was proactive about putting some kind of instrument in my hands. She probably bought a guitar because she couldn’t afford a piano.”
Budgetary issues aside, the guitar was a good choice — Vieaux was transfixed whenever he saw someone playing the instrument on TV. Not long after he got his guitar, Vieaux was picking out popular tunes by ear. When Vieaux was 6 his mother enrolled him in a class to learn how to read music, and the following year he began lessons with Jeremy Sparks, founder of the Buffalo Guitar Quartet (Vieaux grew up in Buffalo, N.Y). That was Vieaux’s introduction to classical guitar music, and the beginning of a passion that still drives the 41-year-old musician today.
Vieaux will perform with the Heartland Festival Orchestra at 7:30 p.m. Sept. 6 and at Eureka College at 3 p.m. Sept. 7.
The guitar crosses into almost every musical genre, and though Vieaux is known for his virtuosity with classical music, he is also lauded for his contemporary arrangements. To showcase his skills, Vieaux will play a variety of music during his two concerts, including some Bach (“Lute Suite No. 1, BWV 996”) and a little Duke Ellington (“In a Sentimental Mood”) at Eureka College. With the Heartland Festival Orchestra he will play two famous works for guitar — Joaquin Rodrigo’s “Concierto de Aranjuez,” and Antonio Vivaldi’s “Guitar Concerto in D.”
“I’ve known of and admired Jason Vieaux from afar for quite some time,” said HFO artistic director and conductor David Commanday. “For his first concert here I thought why not go with the two best-loved guitar concertos.”
Vieaux, who began his professional career after becoming the youngest recipient of the prestigious Guitar Foundation of America International Competition at 19, is working to continue the goals laid out by Andrés Segovia (1893-1987), father of the modern classical guitar movement.
“There’s a long history in Spain and England of classical guitar playing, lute playing, but it was more of a newer thing in America 75 years ago until Segovia started playing all over the U.S.,” said Vieaux.
Segovia showed the modern world what the guitar was capable of. His music was popular, inspiring musicians to begin playing classical guitar in the United States. To further promote the genre, Segovia realized that new classical works would have to be composed for the guitar, a task that several talented contemporary composers took up.
Vieaux is doing his part.
“We just premiered a work by Vivian Fung, a work for violinist Kristin Lee and myself,” said Vieaux. The piece is called “Twist — Violin and Guitar.” “It’s a lot easier than it was 15 years ago — people want to write for me now. I’ve had a lot of success for that. It’s been great.”
Another goal that Segovia had — to create guitar programs at major music conservatories around the world — benefitted Vieaux. He had a number of fine programs to choose from when he went to study with John Holmquist at the Cleveland Institute of Music after graduating from high school at the age of 16. Vieaux has gone on to share his talents by teaching; in 2011, he co-founded the guitar department at The Curtis Institute of Music, and he has taught at the Cleveland Institute of Music since 2001. Two years ago he joined a group of world-class musicians teaching students all over the world one-on-one via an Internet program designed by ArtistWorks Inc. The program has allowed Vieaux to reach hundreds of students, something he has enjoyed.
“I do have a passion for teaching,” he said. “It’s just another form of musical communication.”
To audiences around the world, the guitarist is known for his ability to communicate through performance. Vieaux has performed solo recitals at every major guitar series in North America, as well as many important guitar festivals in Asia, Australia, Europe and Mexico. He has also performed concerto solo with more than 100 orchestras.
That much performing can take a toll on a guitarist’s fingernails, said Vieaux, who recently returned from back-to-back concerts in Argentina and was preparing for a series of five concerts in Norway before performing in central Illinois. He has found a method to reinforce his nails.
“When you break a nail there’s no sound on that fingertip,” said Vieaux. “The most common replacement for that in the classical guitar world is a ping pong ball because it has a texture and thickness most similar to a real nail.” A little super glue keeps the ping pong ball sliver in place through several concerts.
Vieaux is not sure who came up with that trick.
“When I was a teenager, my teacher Jeremy Sparks, suggested it because, by the time I was 12, I was already playing full-length recital pieces. Sometimes the nail would break and I wouldn’t know what to do. It was stressful for me.” Since then Vieaux has been using the artificial nail on his thumb full time.
“It’s more professionally reliable, and I can predetermine the length and shape of it,” he said.
The classical guitarist plays by plucking the strings with his right hand fingers and thumb, and no pick is used. While some other styles of guitar music utilize a similar technique, the skills used by classical guitarists are special.
“It’s simply not possible to communicate the beauty and structure and art of the music without the solid foundation of the technique,” said Vieaux.
What: Heartland Festival Orchestra presents “La Guitarra” with Jason Vieaux.
When: 7:30 p.m. Sept. 6.
Where: Five Points Washington, 360 N. Wilmor Road, Washington.
The community partner for this concert is Tri-County Long-Term Recovery.
Tickets are $35 for adults and $8 for children and students, and can be purchased online at heartlandfestivalorchestra.org, at the Five Points Washington box office, or at Kidder Music, 7728 N. Crestline Drive, Peoria.
To reserve a seat for a free bus ride to the concert call 339-3943.
What: Eureka College presents “Jason Vieaux, Solo Guitar” as part of its continuing Guest Artist Recital Series.
When: 3 p.m. Sept. 7.
Where: The Chapel in McAlister Hall on the Eureka College Campus, Eureka.
Tickets are $20 general admission, and $10 for students, and are available at the door.
The historic chapel is not handicapped accessible — it is accessible only by stairs.
Leslie Renken can be reached at 686-3250 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter, @LeslieRenken, and subscribe to her on Facebook.com/leslie.renken.
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Editor's note: Wrong date: The Jason Vieaux Soo Guitar concert will be Sept. 7 at Eureka College. The wrong date (Aug. 7) was listed in the Aug. 24 Arts Plus article in print and online.