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Renaissance Man: Frederic Hand by Peter Aaron

Woodstock’s Frederic Hand is one of the world’s greatest living classical guitarists, as well as one of its most versatile composers and sought-after instructors. After studying under England’s legendary Julian Bream he went on to arrange and perform the theme from the Academy Award-winning film Kramer vs. Kramer and record the best-selling album Baroque and on the Street (Columbia Records, 1989). Hand also led the acclaimed ensemble Jazzantiqua, which included saxophonist Jane Ira Bloom and whose self-titled 1983 LP on the Music Heritage Society label has been hailed as an influential synthesis of Renaissance and jazz forms. Since 1986 he has performed as the Metropolitan Opera’s guitarist and lutenist and currently serves on the faculties of the Mannes College of Music, Bennington College, and SUNY Purchase. Most recently, the Emmy-winning Hand’s composition “Prayer” (recorded by John Williams) was nominated for a Grammy. On May 15 Hand will perform a rare local solo concert at Unison in New Paltz; the following day he will present a special master class for classical guitarists.

You’re of the generation that came up with rock ‘n’ roll during the 1960s and ‘70s. What drew you to classical and early music instead of rock or pop? Was this the music your family listened to?

Yes, it was. But what drew me to the classical guitar was being taken to a Segovia concert when I was six years old. That’s when I actually decided how I would spend my life.

What’s Julian Bream like as a teacher and a person?

Julian has been one of the greatest musical influences in my life. That influence started by being introduced to his recordings, long before I studied with him. Once I became his student he was incredibly generous with his time and advice. I am forever in his debt for all that he gave me. As a teacher, he was all about the music and not much interested in guitar technique. His musical insights, considerations, and observations were at a level that I had previously not been exposed to. That’s not to say that we didn’t discuss the guitar. But he set musical goals (often comparing the effect that he was trying to create to a piano or an orchestra) and then left it to you to figure out how to make that happen guitaristically. As a person, Julian is great fun, always up for a good joke or story.

Interestingly, last month we interviewed jazz bassist Michael Bisio of the trio Collar City Createology, who has also worked in the classical field. With your 1983 album Jazzantiqua (RCA Records) you came from the other direction to blend Renaissance music and jazz. How do the two genres complement each other? What do they have in common?

The genres complement each other in that both jazz and Renaissance music are based on traditions of improvising melodies over given harmonies or chord progressions. While the musical languages of each era differ, the concept of improvisation is identical. Also, Renaissance compositions tend to utilize many different modes (scales), as do contemporary jazz pieces. It is effortless to move back and forth between the two styles using the modes as a time machine.

over 20 years you’ve had what most classical players would consider their dream job: a chair with the Met. How did you land that gig?

In 1986, the Met staged a new production of Francesca Da Rimini by Riccardo Zandonai. The score required a lute. I had been performing and recording with the renaissance band “Calliope.” The percussionist for that group, Ben Harms, is also an extra percussionist at the Met and he recommended me. After the initial run of the production in New York, we toured throughout the United States. At the conclusion of the tour I was invited to become the Met’s permanent guitarist and lutenist.


You’ve performed with Placido Domingo and Luciano Pavarotti. What was that like? Intimidating?

Initially, it was intimidating, and it wasn’t just because of the big opera stars. [Metropolitan Opera director] James Levine is an imposing conductor and the orchestra is one of the finest in the world. Guitarists are trained as soloists and usually have no training playing in an orchestra or following a conductor. So I experienced a lot of on the job training. But that aside, it has been thrilling. The music-making is at such a high level and the sets and staging are spectacular. I remember playing a Three Tenors concert in Giant Stadium in front of 75,000 people. What an incredible experience, kind of surreal. But no matter who is singing, accompanying always comes down to the same thing: listening and reacting. And in the moment that it’s happening, you’re not thinking, “I can’t believe that’s Pavarotti.” You’re just playing music.

While it’s safe to say that most of our readers have at least held a guitar at some point in their lives, outside of Renaissance etchings in history books it’s likely not many have ever seen a lute. How are the two instruments similar and what are the main differences?

The strings of both instruments are plucked with the fingers of the right hand and fretted with the fingers of the left hand. The Renaissance lute and the guitar are tuned in a similar fashion. The lute is higher pitched, but with the exception of the third string, the two tunings are relatively the same. The biggest difference is tonal quality. The lute has a more trebly sound; the guitar is warmer in timbre. The lute is double strung, similar to the 12-string guitar. Therefore, one has to pluck the strings at a slightly different angle. Also, the rounded shape of the lute presents a challenge in holding it securely.

May 16, the day after your performance at Unison, you’re conducting a master class at the same venue. For classical guitarists interested in attending, what do you have planned?

It’s going to be a workshop that includes the traditional master class format. Guitarists will perform their repertoires and I’ll offer technical and interpretive advice. The class is also open to composers who write for the guitar, with a similar format.

Beyond your busy teaching schedule and work with the Met, what other projects are you currently involved in? Any new releases or soundtrack work?

I’ve just been invited (with the great flutist Paula Robison) to arrange music for a performance at Lincoln Center featuring Stephen Colbert reading Ferdinand the Bull. In addition, I’ve been working on the development of a new kind of capo that I invented with a friend, jazz guitarist Peter Einhorn. This capo allows you to create hundreds of alternate tunings without de-tuning the guitar. I’ve written a new piece using it and will premiere it at the concert at Unison. I’m also in the process of recording a new CD of original compositions.

Frederic Hand will be performing at Unison Arts Center on May 15th, with a classical guitar master class the following afternoon (May 16th).

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