Interview with Maestro Ernesto Bitetti
Originally published with Guitar International
By: Brad Conroy
There are very few classical guitarists who are deserving of the title maestro. One has to work endlessly, dedicate their entire life to performing, championing new music for their instrument, have an extensive recording catalog, and they must spend a great deal of their time teaching and shaping the next generation of students as well.
When thinking of who the maestros of guitar are, the immediate names that come to mind are Andres Segovia, Julian Bream, and perhaps Oscar Ghiglia has also rightfully earned such a title.
Argentinean born guitarist Ernesto Bitetti is another very important figure who also belongs within this most elite category.
Bitetti has been performing on the concert stage for the past 40 years, and has made appearances on five continents in some of the most prestigious halls the world has to offer: Bolshoi (St. Petersburg, Russia), Metropolitan Festival (Tokyo), Concertgebouw (Amsterdam), Lincoln Center (New York), Pleyel (Paris), Teatro Colon (Buenos Aires), Musikverein (Vienna), Queen Elizabeth Hall (London), Town Hall (Sydney), Teatro Real (Madrid), Kennedy Center (Washington, D.C.), Gulbenkian (Lisbon), Herkulesaal (Munich) as well as many others.
In 1989 Bitetti founded one of the finest guitar programs in the world at Indiana University's Jacobs School of Music, and has been the Department Head ever since.
He has over fifteen recordings to his credit where he tackled a vast majority of the guitar repertoire, and for major recording labels like Hispavox, EMI, and Deutsche Gramophone.
Bitetti has premiered and had new works dedicated to him by esteemed composers like: Rodrigo, Torroba, Tedesco, Duarte, Abril, and Piazzolla to name but a few.
Bitetti has gone above and beyond in terms of what he has done for the classical guitar, and has no doubt helped to shape generations of students through his teaching and recordings.
His passion and dedication to the instrument are apparent, and the extensive and growing list of his accomplishments serve as the proof of his success.
He recently sat down with Guitar International to discuss the classical guitar, Andres Segovia, his role at Indiana University, and much more.
Brad Conroy: How did you get started with the guitar?
Ernesto Bitetti: I began to play classical guitar when I was 5 years old in my native city Rosario, Argentina.
My teachers were Graciela Pomponio and Jorge M. Zarate. The whole dream to become a guitarist came to me through a movie that I saw with my grandmother which related to the life of the last Argentinian payador (gaucho, troubadour) Betinotti.
It was so mesmerizing to me, to think that he traveled all over the Pampas accompanied by his horse and his guitar. The sound of the instrument fascinated me in such way that as soon as I got home, I asked my parents if they would buy me one.
Brad: Who have been some of the influences and helping hands in your career?
Ernesto Bitetti: Nobody really helped me except for my parents, who were very supportive, and then later my wife of 49 years, Graciela.
Essentially I did it all by myself. I was studying up to 12 hours a day when I was 17-18. This really helped me to develop my technical skills.
After that period of extensive practicing I spent another four years of intensive study at the Instituto Superior de Musica (Universidad del Litoral) in Santa Fe, Capital of the Province.
At this Institution I followed all the courses required to complete my formal studies as a musician: 4 years of piano, 1 of flute, 6 months of cello, conducting choir, History of Art, Literature, Music Theory, Form and Analysis, and Counterpoint.
Brad: What was your relationship like with Andres Segovia?
Ernesto Bitetti: Segovia, that was my role model in my young years. I had a very disappointing experience in Santiago de Compostela (1965). After waiting for a whole month, duration of the course, being the only guitarist he had not heard yet, he called me the last day with very bad humor and treated me in a very mean way.
There is a video on Youtube where I am playing for him the “Sonatina Meridional” by Ponce which gives credit to this experience.
20 years later we had a long conversation at his house in Madrid only 10 blocks from mine, and I made peace. Days later he forwarded me a nice letter pondering all of my accomplishments.
Brad: What has it been like to head and develope one of the most respected guitar programs in the country at Indiana University for the past 28 years?
Ernesto Bitetti: I will explain the work that I have been doing for the past 28 years as Chair of the Guitar Department:
In 1980 during a tour of concerts in the US I was invited by the famous cellist Janos Starker to give a recital at Indiana University. After this event Mr. Starker asked if I was interested in giving a Workshop during the summer of 1981.
Many years after, 1988, I finished my recital at a Music Festival in Caracas, Venezuela, where I met by coincidence Dean Charles Webb of Indiana University, who was present and it seemed to have made Dr. Webb realize the necessity of creating a Guitar Program at I.U.
Some months later he called to Madrid offering me this possibility. I was so engaged in performances that I delayed my reply for months, until I finally accepted his offer to open the program in September 1989.
This was a true challenge for me because up until this time my professional life was only dedicated to performances (touring 7 months a year) and recordings.
It was a Major enterprise to say the least, because it is not easy to build up a program from scratch.
There were very few elective guitar classes, and it was all up to me to create the rest. It took me almost 3 years to develop and create not only the Bachelor, but also the Master’s and Doctoral Programs as well.
I had to develop a strategy in how to increase the elective classes in order to enhance the School as a whole, and at the same time generating an income for possible scholarships to be given to Graduate Students.
Today the program has grown to include more than 26 guitar majors which range between Graduate, Undergraduate, and Doctoral students, many of whom are coming from foreign countries like Norway, Italy, Taiwan, China, Bulgaria, Serbia, Turkey, Canada, Costa Rica, Brazil, Mexico, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, South Korea and US.
We offer the Performer and the Artists Diploma’s, which are heavily concentrated on performing, and have also created a Major Guitar Ensemble (12 members) directed by our Visiting Lecturer, Daniel Duarte a I.U. DMA graduate. Daniel is doing something really special within our program, and he makes specific arrangements for the Ensemble from orchestral scores like Ballet Estancias which we premiered in honor of Ginastera’s 100th anniversary, Vivaldi Concertos, Carmen by Bizet, and we have also commissioned new works by Christian Dozza, Marcos Vieira, and from the Argentinean composer Jorge Variego.
In the past 28 years we have built the program up to include Guitar History, Pedagogy, and Arranging courses, multiple ensembles, and even hold the annual Indiana International Guitar Festival and Competition which attracts 50 competitors from 14 different nations competing in 3 different divisions; Open, Junior, and Senior Youth.
At IU, we have 8 Associate Instructors (Graduate students) who have the opportunity of teaching all levels of elective classes and individual electives, which helps to give them an excellent training (finishing their Master’s and Doctor’s degrees) for future positions at High Schools, Colleges and Universities.
Of course Chamber Music is a must in our School, and this is a privilege because there are so many excellent instrumentalists (flutists, violinists, cellists, etc) willing to play with guitar.
The goal is to make our guitar students better musicians by having them take full advantage of the infrastructure of our School of Music, which is the largest in the world and consist of 4 Symphony Orchestras, Chamber Orchestra, Contemporary Music Ensemble, etc.
IU offers more than 1150 performances year round, and our Music Library has catalogued 3000 works in which guitar is included in all its possibilities, (solo, duos, trios, chamber music, concertos, etc.)
Petar Jankovic is another Lecturer that, aside from his duties as professor, he coordinates 29 Elective classes (Total 300 Guitarists), plus the elective individual students as well as teaching the Guitar Literature and Guitar Pedagogy courses.
Our pre-college program directed by Atanas Tzvetkov has 45 youngsters (6 to 17 years) taught exclusively in classical guitar with their own workshops and recitals.
It is amazing the interest that classical guitar is getting in this country, and with so many applications. Pre-college programs are essential in order to introduce younger students to the classical guitar, then they can perform at a great level in their teens.
I feel the classical guitar is healthy in US and becoming to being taken seriously in consideration as the instrument of 21st Century.
Brad: What do you expect from and try to instill in your IU students?
Ernesto Bitetti: The priority is to have a very friendly atmosphere where the Graduates help the Undergraduates and everyone has the opportunity (at Master Classes) to play for the others.
Second, is to prepare our guitarists to be the most well rounded complete musicians which are pushed by the strong academic courses that I.U. offers.
Third, is to help the students to progress rapidly in their technical and interpretative skills.
We work in a vast repertoire (in case of Graduates 90% chosen by the students) working with the pieces they really love to play and covering four Centuries of Guitar History.
Of course there is a special interest to study the Spanish and Latin American Music.
Brad: With such a long and illustrious career, what have been a few highlights?
Ernesto Bitetti: I have many different kinds of highlights:
Having the opportunity to work closely with such relevant composers like Rodrigo, Torroba, Tedesco, Duarte, Garcia Abril, Piazzolla, etc, and them writing and dedicating works for me that I would then world premiere in my concerts was always satisfying.
In the performing area, I have had the opportunity of playing with wonderful Symphonies and Chamber Orchestras all over the world, and in the best halls (for instance Musikverein Vienna, Concertgebouw Amsterdam, Teatro Real Madrid,) where I have played several times.
Before coming to Indiana I used to tour 7 months a year, very interesting but exhausting life.
Some other highlights were touring with the Prague Chamber Orchestra and performing the “Aranjuez Concerto” without a conductor, and sharing this responsibility with the Concertmaster. Also, playing with Placido Domingo in front of 50,000 people at the Sevilla Soccer stadium in the presentation of Expo 1992 was truly amazing.
Brad: What are some elements that you believe make a good musician?
Ernesto Bitetti: The answer is simple: at a young age you have to acquire all the knowledge a musician should learn, and make sure you have a solid musical background in technique, theory, history, and ear training. The instrument is the final tool to give life to the written score.
Brad: What advice can you give to the aspiring guitarist?
Ernesto Bitetti: I touched on this in a previous question, but I will add that discipline and dedication is fundamental to progress, nobody gets results being lazy.
There is a period of time in which it is necessary to practice, practice and practice. When you believe you are prepared for the professional career, then comes the next step, how to get performances.
Nowadays is completely different than 40 years ago when I began. In those times there were no guitar competitions except for one at Radio France, so the only way was to send LP’s, bios, and knock door by door. Today there is Youtube, internet radio, and Competitions being the only way to get heard and appreciated, even if you do not win. It is difficult but not impossible.
The most talented ones prevail, but who also posses a special charisma, personality, and the luck to be in the right place at the right moment.
Brad: Can you give us some insights into recording the classical guitar?
Ernesto Bitetti: I began my professional performance career through recordings, especially my first “Aranjuez” and Castelnuovo Tedesco’s Concertos which were recorded in 1967, so long ago.
This LP opened the possibilities in many countries as it was distributed world wide through Hispavox in Spain. In those times I used to produce 2 LP’s per year (in a period of 10 years) mainly of Spanish Music, but also Italian and South American.
Some of them were very special; in 1983 I won the Annual Recording Spanish Prize offered by the Ministry of Culture for the first time recording the complete works of Gaspar Sanz for classical guitar.
Brad: Do you have favorite repertoire to play?
Ernesto Bitetti: I always loved what I selected to play. I have never been obliged to perform any work that I disliked. My repertoire has always been really wide, but perhaps my favorites lately are Piazzolla, Villa-lobos, and Dyens.
Brad: What does the future hold for Ernesto Bitetti?
Ernesto Bitetti: Who knows? I live the present and is pretty busy to think about future.