Until this year, the Curtis Institute of Music, the famed conservatory in Philadelphia, did not regard the guitar as an instrument worthy of a place in its curriculum. When the school changed its policy, it hired Jason Vieaux to co-run a guitar department. This week, Vieaux gave a Café Concert, offering a program that was in some ways a treatise on the guitar's usefulness, both as solo instrument with an original repertoire, and as a close cousin of rock music and jazz.
Of the former category, Vieaux performed two works by the usual suspects: Sevilla, a tasteful arrangement Isaac Albeniz, and Joropo, an evocative Latin dance piece by the Argentine composer José Merlin (both will be heard in a recital at the Caramoor Festival on July 21). He also switched gears to perform an arrangement of a song by the jazz-guitar legend Pat Metheny, who was the subject of Vieaux’s 2005 album “Images of Metheny.”
Vieaux, 38, is known for stretching the boundaries of classical guitar repertoire even as he works from within the system. In the 1990s he became the youngest person to ever lead the Cleveland Institute of Music Guitar Department. During that time, the guitar was enjoying a healthy expansion in higher education, as American conservatories like Juilliard, the Eastman School of Music and the Oberlin Conservatory all launched guitar departments. Curtis was a holdout -- a conservatory with primacy in orchestral, vocal, piano, and solo career training -- but under director Roberto Díaz, was seeking to encourage new areas of emphasis.
“We are really entering something of a golden age right now for guitar,” said Vieaux, who will run the new department with David Starobin. “I’ve seen just in the last five years there’s a huge surge of tons of players that play the instrument great. You even hear some natural musicians in there.”
Curtis will have just four guitar students when the new program is up and running, but given that enrollment at the entire school is in the range of 150 to 170 students, it’s indicative of its selectiveness. Vieaux, who was a guitar prodigy while growing up in Buffalo, NY, and who himself entered the Cleveland Institute at age 16, is optimistic about the future for the classical guitar.
“You see a lot more competitions and festivals,” he said. “Every week out of the year there’s a guitar competition and festival combined in some corner of the world. There are a lot more opportunities for young players to play.” He paused, and added, “I like checking out what the younger cats are doing.”
Video: Amy Pearl; Audio: Edward Haber; Interview and text: Brian Wise