Canadian Wunderkind

Friday, 1 October 1999

by Alison Bert

Dale Kavanagh talks about her concert career in Europe, composer collaborations, advice for guitarists, and her duo and symposium.

I first heard about Dale Kavanagh at the Accademia Musicale Chigiana in the picturesque town of Siena, Italy. It was July 1983, and the festival participants were strolling through the Piazza relaxing before auditions would take place the next day. Oscar Ghiglia, who taught the guitar masterclasses, would remind us excitedly from time to time, “Dale’s coming!” He wasn’t sure just when, but for those of us that didn’t know her, we knew that there was something very important about her arrival. I would soon find out. She was a striking and carefree woman whose charisma and zest for the Italian summer life too easily spilled over into her flawless guitar playing. Since then, her career has blossomed in Europe, and she has become one of todays most gifted and active performers.

Between 1986-1988 Kavanagh was a top prize winner in Spain’s Segovia Competition, Italy’s Gargnano Competition, Switzerland’s Neuchatel Competition, and First and Special Prize winner in Finland’s Scandinavian International Guitar Competition.

Kavanagh received her Bachelor of Music degree at Dalhousie University in Canada. She then completed her graduate studies with the Solisten Diplom at the Musik Academie der Stadt Basel with Oscar Ghiglia in Switzerland.

Dale Kavanagh performs internationally as a soloist and in the Amadeus Guitar Duo with German guitarist Thomas Kirchhoff and has give concerts in more than 20 countries. She is a regular recitalist and teacher in guitar and music festivals in Canada, Poland, Turkey, Germany, Holland, Sweden, Hungary, England and the United States and has given more that 300 concerts around the world.

Many composers have written works for Dale Kavanagh, including Carlo Domeniconi, Jaimie A. Zenamon, Roland Dyens, Dtephen Dodgson, Stephen Funk-Pearson, Bruce Shavers, Christian Jost, and Harald Genzmer.

Her 6 CDs have received superlative reviews in international magazines such as Classical Guitar, Fono Forum, Hi-Fi Vision, Gendai Guitar, Gitarre und Laute, Le Cahier de la guitare, Müsikblatt, Stacatto, Klassik Heute, Akustik Guitar and many others.

Dale and I lost touch for many years only to meet again at the GFA festival in La Jolla last fall. She had recently moved back to Canada, where she resides in Toronto with her husband and duo partner Thomas Kirchhoff and their three year old daughter Melissa. As we sat on a breezy restaurant patio near the shores of this Southern California village, an interview seemed the perfect way to welcome my colleague back to North America, catch up on her career, and introduce her to guitarists in America who have not had as many opportunities as their European counterparts to experience her music-making.

Alison Bert:
Why did you chose to live in Germany?

Dale Kavanagh:
I went to Switzerland to study, and when I finished my studies I wanted to stay. I love Europe, and because I played competitions, I was meeting a lot of people from Europe. The opportunity to perform there is fantastic if you can get into the circle. There are so many opportunities with not so much travel time. You don’t have to fly – you can take trains.

Alison Bert:
How is the concert scene in Europe different from the one in the United States and Canada?

Dale Kavanagh:
I don’t really know the concert scene in the States, a lot of the concerts go through guitar societies. In Europe, a lot of concerts are on chamber music concert series. They have so many venues, so many possibilities for chamber music to be played – and they are taking more and more guitar all of the time, not just chamber music but solo guitar, duo guitar and guitar with voice. These concerts take place in chamber music halls which seat between 200 and 500 people. I like playing in these concert halls – you are going to get guitar players, but you are also going to get the normal public, which is a very good thing. Those are the main places where we play, but we also play in big halls. Plus, we also have many guitar festivals that have been popping up over the years, and in a way, those festivals are like guitar societies, except all of their artists are presented in one week. So you play a few of those a year and you get by.

Alison Bert:
Would you talk about some of the composer you have worked with.

Dale Kavanagh:
I’ve worked with quite a few composers living in Germany. Jaime Zenamon was born in Bolivia, raised in Brazil, and spent about 20 years in Berlin and Holland before returning to Brazil. I played a competition many years ago, and he was on the jury. After the competition he gave me a piece and said, “Why don’t you play it?” I said “Thank you very much,” and I put it on my shelf and did not look at it for five years. Then I picked it up and said, “Oh, This is fun, this is good!” and I’ve played now about six pieces of his. Our duo plays one piece, and he wrote us a concerto for two guitars and orchestra called Charisma.

And then there is Carlo Domeniconi, who’s Italian but moved when he was about 17 years old with his family to Berlin. He married a Turkish woman, so he spent a lot of time in Turkey. He is very highly respected there. He taught at the Istanbul Conservatory for seven years. He has given me a lot of support. He introduced me to Turkey in 1991. I’ve worked a lot with him on different pieces, and I’ve played also his duo concerto with orchestra and recorded it. He’s writing me a solo piece now – Toccata in Blue. It’s got the blues in it heavy duty, but it is hidden within the piece. I mean, the piece isn’t the blues.

Alison Bert:
Would you talk more about your experience with Carlo Domeniconi? I’ve heard that he encourages people to interpret his music freely rather than playing it exactly as written.

Dale Kavanagh:
He wants you to be free. He wants a person to play musically – breathing, taking time. He’s very Turkish influenced. If you play his music, it’s really important to listen to Turkish folk music. Get some tapes, and listen to some of the music that’s played on the saz and some of the vocal music to understand the things that he has had in his ears which inspired him to write in this style. He mixes Western and Turkish styles. We all know our Western music, but we don’t have it in our ear like he does, t hat kind of sound. It definitely makes a difference in your playing when you listen to some of that and then think about his music. In this piece Trilogy, also called Triptychon, there’s a middle section in the first movement in which he wants you to improvise in the Turkish style. So you have to have a feeling for it or you are just going to bring out your own roots. But I think that it is OK to bring out your roots, as long as it has some of the Turkish influence in it, and he does too. We can only be what we are. And that is what he wants you to be, but he wants you to understand where he is coming from. The last movement of Trilogy is called “Ragtime”, but it’s not an actual ragtime piece. If you just play it straight, you don’t even hear the ragtime. He called it “Ragtime” so you would sway the rhythm a little and have a feeling of ragtime. Then there’s Harald Genzmer. I’ve played his concerto for two guitars and orchestra. He’s actually the most often performed composer in Germany. He’s incredibly prolific. He writes a lot of music for children, he writes a lot of orchestra music, everything. He hasn’t written so much for guitar, but now he has written this concerto and a couple of other duos. He’ll be 90 next year. He was a student of Hindemith, and you can hear it in his music. And he’s very supportive – a wonderful man. Another composer is Martin Herchenröder. He’s a wonderful composer, a student of (Hans Werner) Henze. And he’s very well respected in Germany. He’s a professor in his early 30’s which is very rare in Germany. It’s a different system that here in the States, and usually you are 40 before you get a professorship. He performs organ also and composed very intense music. He has his own style, more abstract but extremely emotional. I have to have emotional stuff. I have to have something passionate – something that just leaves me flat. Not always, but I really like that kind of stuff.

Alison Bert:
Which other composers have written works for you?

Dale Kavanagh:
We just premiered a duo concerto by Christian Jost. It’s called Pegasus, and it’s a story of Pegasus. We have played it often since then. Jaime(Zenamon) and Genzmer wrote pieces for our duo and Herchenröder and Carlo Domeniconi are writing solo works for me. All of these composers have completely differently styles from each other, but they are all modern, active composers. Also, Roland Dyens is writing a duo concerto for us. The idea is an amalgamation of the Canadian, German and French national anthems because I’m Canadian, Thomas German and Roland French. This all began in Estergom. He was freaking out about the Canadian national anthem, improvising variations of jazz and other styles. Then he said, “Why don’t I write you a theme and variations?”

Alison Bert:
How would you describe the style of Jost?

Dale Kavanagh:
It’s classical rock. Sometimes you hear influences, whether he likes it or not….you hear a little bit of Stravinsky, a little bit of Ives. You definitely hear some crazy stuff – themes going against each other in different parts.

Alison Bert:
Are there certain composers you want to work with?

Dale Kavanagh:
I want to work with all of the composers I can. I like to hear different people’s music, and try to understand how they are thinking. There are composers writing and giving me, and the duo, pieces all the time. We have lots of things to go through, and we are also totally open and interested in that. In the duo, we are really interested in playing a lot with orchestra and getting pieces written for orchestra. In my solo work, I’m always looking for new pieces. I’m very interested in the twentieth century in every style.

Alison Bert:
Do you compose at all?

Dale Kavanagh:
Yes, but just for a hobby. I’m not an educated composer. I just do it for fun. Do you compose?

Alison Bert:
I do more arranging, and I write songs. When I compose I end up writing stuff that I have already heard, and that’s really annoying.

Dale Kavanagh:
Well, we are all very influenced. And it’s funny, what you hear in different composers that they might now hear themselves.. We hear different influences This composer reminds me of 5 different composers, hints of this and that. Very often the composers themselves might not even notice that. I find that humorous – and interesting.

Alison Bert:
I used to give a lecture recital where I performed the Twelve Etude of Villa Lobos, and I showed how I thought he had been influenced by composers through much of history, starting with Bach and ending with his contemporaries in Europe. I found it even more interesting because he had said that his only influence outside of Brazil came from the music of Bach. He would say things like “My art is my own…nobody influences me”.

Dale Kavanagh:
Excuse me, is it possible to be a composer without being influenced?!!

Alison Bert:
Who were some of the guitarists and musicians in general who inspired you?

Dale Kavanagh:
Lots of people inspire me. Of course my big guitar inspiration was Oscar Ghiglia, without a doubt. He was one of the first guitar concerts that I ever heard, and that changed my life completely. There’s lots of great guitarists. I listen to as many as possible and what I can from all of them. There’s great playing going on now.

Alison Bert:
Any musicians that are not guitarists who have influenced you?

Dale Kavanagh:
Yeah, Michel Angeli. I say that because we play an edition of the Busoni (Bach) Chaconne for two guitars, which is really very exciting. He arranged it for piano, and now it is arranged for guitar, and it is absolutely fantastic. I love piano music; I love great piano players.

Alison Bert:
What advice would you give to young people who have studied guitar in college and want a concert career? What should they do with their next years out of school?

Dale Kavanagh:
Two words – GET ORGANIZED. Also, I think it’s very important for students and young artists to do competitions. Not to do many, but it is important to experience, it is important for your resume, it is a high pressure test. I think that everyone who is thinking of doing concerts should go through at least five or six competitions. And then you have to be organized, and not sit and just practice all of the time. You have to get all of your practicing done, but you have to get out there, and talk to people and send your material, you must have a CD. And find a focus – maybe on repertoire or time period. Like pianists: “He plays romantic, another plays Classical period, another’s a Baroque pianist…”

Alison Bert:
You mean it is important to have a specialization?

Dale Kavanagh:
I think that it doesn’t hurt. It helps you too. There’s so much to do out there. Everyone says there’s no guitar literature. Whoa! Excuse me – there’s so much to do, there’s certainly enough to keep us all busy. There are so many great people writing all of the time, there are new things to discover, there’s always old music, new transcriptions to be made. There’s a slew of things out there to do.

Alison Bert: So what is your focus?

Dale Kavanagh:
I have been focusing lately on finding new composers, because I like meeting them, knowing them and understanding the, and I like discovering new pieces and putting my ideas into them before I’ve heard anyone else. I really like that. It’s a kind of freedom – you’re not influenced by anyone else’s interpretation. That’s what I’m focused on now and have been for the last while. I can also change my focus. When I finish this next CD I’d like to focus on the classical period for a while. In the duo we focus very strongly on playing with orchestra – and new concertos with orchestra and building the repertoire, and being players who really play a lot with orchestra. We play at least 20 concerts with orchestra a year and this is very exciting. When I play with orchestra, it is a real joy now because I am experienced. Very often guitarists get just a few opportunities to play with orchestra. and there is so much to learn from this experience. There’s so much to listen for. It needs practice, not just rehearsal time but knowing how to listen and how to work on pieces, and how to work together with orchestra – that is fascinating, and it’s different from playing solo or duo.

Alison Bert:
Can you recall any memorable learning experiences from when you were less experienced??

Dale Kavanagh:
Many. But my experience with orchestra has always been very good. I’ve always had a good relationship with the conductors, and the musicians have been really supportive, which I didn’t always expect. But very often the musicians in the orchestra might miss entries here and there, and you have to be ready for these situations and keep on going…and make music. And it’s very interesting to play with different orchestras. In the last 3 months we played the Jost with three different orchestras – and how completely different they all play. Just like we all play differently. The conductor conducts it differently, they all have different ideas, you give your ideas, but nonetheless, they’re going to play the way they play. I think that’s great don’t you?

Alison Bert:
That depends.

Dale Kavanagh:
It can be pretty horrible too.