Interview with Vladislav Blaha Classical Guitarist
Originally Published April 2013 with Guitar International
By Brad Conroy:
Vladislav Blaha has to be one of the hardest working and most accomplished classical guitarists in the world today. He has given concerts in more than 35 countries, and in the most prestigious halls on nearly every continent. Blaha has nine solo recordings to his credit, a sponsorship with Savarez Strings, and his artistry has inspired twenty seven composers from sixteen different countries to write and dedicate works to him; the ‘Usher Waltz’ by Nikita Koshkin, and ‘Moraviana’ by J.W Duarte are just two of the great works which have been dedicated to him.
Blaha is also the founder and director of the of the International Guitar Festival in Brno, Czech Republic, which attracts one hundred and fifty students each August from around the world, and in its twenty two years has without a doubt become one of Europe’s most important and prestigious guitar festivals.
In 2004 Blaha finished his Doctor of Arts Degree at the Academy of Music in Bratislava, Slovakia, and since then he has not only kept up with a busy international concert schedule, but has also been helping to shape the next generation of guitarists through the many master-classes that he gives, and as the Professor of guitar at the Janáček Academy of Music in Brno, Czech Republic.
Vladislav Blaha recently found time to sit down with us at Guitar International as he passed through Chicago to discuss his Guitar Festival, practicing, the story behind the ‘Usher Waltz’, the recording process, and much more.
BC How did you get started with the guitar?
VB I started quite late, at about 9 years old. My father always had a guitar in the house and would play while he and my mother sang folk and popular music. As a child I remember being thrilled by this, and eventually my parents decided to enroll my sister and I into the music school. The first teacher that we had was a cellist and we only ended up studying with him for a short while, but after a few months I was so eager to learn that I enrolled myself in another music school and I was very lucky that the new teacher started me with classical guitar. I really liked it, won some junior competitions, and eventually decided to further my studies at the conservatoire.
BC What guitar method books did your first teacher take you through?
VB Ah, you would not know it because it was a Czech Guitar Book by Antonin Bartos, who was a great pedagogue that later immigrated to Canada. It was a very structured book and was good in terms of teaching the basics of technique and understanding notation.
BC Do you teach young students, or very beginning students from the ground up?
VB No, for the past ten years I have had a full appointment at the Janáček Academy of Music and Performing Arts in Brno, which is a University level school. So my students are quite advanced by the time they get to study with me at the university.
We only have two University Level Academies in the Czech Republic, one is in Prague where Stepan Rak is teaching, and the second is in Brno where I am teaching.
I also have a part-time appointment at the Brno Conservatory where I work with talented High School students and am preparing a few special talents for further study at the university.
BC What are your thoughts on making a career as a professional classical guitarist?
VB Luck certainly has a lot to do with it, but you also need to be very talented, have a love for music, and a special passion for the guitar. You have to have a very good teacher that can guide you and help to open doors, and perhaps even winning some competitions is important these days.
Even though I don’t really like competitions, I do feel it is important to win a few or at least compete in some to help get your name and artistry out there in the public's mind. Competitions also give you the experience of performing in more heightened and tense situations, and this kind of practice will further help to prepare you for an artist’s life on the stage.
There are many very good players who have won a lot of competitions but don’t have big careers, and there are other players who haven’t won any competitions and are doing very well because of the good circumstances around them. It takes a special person to make it in the professional world, and there are so many things that go into being able to advance and sustain a career as a classical guitarist.
BC What have your practice habits been like?
VB When I was young and in the music school I never practiced very much, it was always a bit easy for me, but when I came to the conservatoire I realized that I was behind and that is when I decided to practice 2, and then 3 to 4 hours a day.
In my first years at the conservatory I didn’t really know too much, my repertoire was very poor, but after four years of seriously practicing I was able to perform some great works like the ‘Chaconne’ by Bach, and at the age of 19 I was the first student in the Czech Republic to give a recital with full orchestra where I performed the ‘Aranjuez Concerto’ by Rodrigo.
Practicing now can be very difficult with all of the commitments that I am keeping. Teaching at the academy and the conservatory, being the director of the Brno Festival, performing and giving so many master-classes at festivals, it all adds up to a very time consuming job which makes it very difficult to practice on a regular schedule.
If I have a tour or some concerts on the horizon I often have to play catch up and will practice 6 hours a day in order to prepare my program, or to learn the new pieces that I am adding to my repertoire.
BC Who were your favorite classical guitarists in the beginning?
VB There are so many great guitarists performing today, but when I first started out there were only a few. Of course there was Andres Segovia, and he was such a big personality, a great musician that did everything in his own way and I find it impossible not to be inspired by that.
Julian Bream I have always thought was just perfect. He is so musical and expressive, and I have always admired the technique of John Williams. Then came a flood of other great masters like the Assad Brothers, Manuel Barrueco, and David Russell. Today there are a number of talented guitarists and it is difficult to know all of the names, and it is a daunting task to try and listen to all of the many great recordings that are coming out, there just isn’t time to listen to them all.
Now I try and limit the amount of guitar music that I listen to, and prefer the orchestral and piano repertoire. This gives me a better understanding of phrasing, articulation, how to make the music sing, breathe, and then all of these ideas I can bring back to the guitar.
BC Are there differences between the European audiences and the American audiences that you perform for?
VB It is difficult to say you know, there can be different audiences in different countries, and then there can be different tastes in the same country. I played a concert two days ago for a very distinguished audience and they listened very carefully, but they were very rigid, or you could say cold.
Yesterday’s concert was to an audience that also listened well, but they were warm and laughed at the comments that I made between pieces, and this always makes for a nice concert both for me and the audience.
I would say that it really depends on what hall you are performing and what kind of audience you are playing for more so than what country you are in.
BC Recording is so hard, how do you do it?
VB In the beginning I remember it was very difficult, but now that I have done a few recordings over the years I am getting much better at the process. I do think that it is much more difficult to record a CD than it is to give a good concert.
I always like to make my recordings in a hall with natural acoustics, as opposed to in a studio. The Weiss CD that I made was recorded in an old castle where the acoustics were just amazing and really complimented the music. I think that was in 1991 and recording was much more expensive in those day, so we only had 3 days to record 74 minutes of music. It can be very hard to play well and concentrate under this kind of pressure, but I knew this would be the case before hand so I spent many months practicing and making sure that I was well prepared before it was time to record.
I also made a CD with a full orchestra where we recorded the Ponce ‘Del Sur Concerto’ and the ‘E Dur Concerto’ by Karel Kohout, which I am very proud that this is the only recording of this work. We were using a big orchestra which is very expensive and were limited to only two days. We spent much of the first day rehearsing because the orchestra didn’t practice at all before the recording session, and I think that it ended up taking 10 hours just to record the first movement of the Kohout, which then left us with only 6 hours to record the other movements and the Ponce.
Recording can become very stressful, but I always find that the most important thing is to be very well prepared and to have a great understanding of the music before trying to record it.
BC What did you think when Koshkin dedicated the ‘Usher Waltz’ to you, a work that has become such a favorite of the repertoire?
VB I wasn’t really thinking much about it at the time. I first met Koshkin in Moscow while I was in Russia on tour. I hadn’t really heard too much about him other than when I heard another Czech guitarist perform his work ‘The Prince’s Toys.’ We were supposed to go and hear an orchestra perform, but ended up missing this performance because we were caught up playing and talking guitar together. We immediately became very good friends and a few months after I returned home he wrote me a letter and sent me his latest work, the ‘Usher Wlatz’, which is a very special piece that is dedicated to me.
I was at a Guitar Festival in Hungary where Leo Brouwer was conducting the orchestra, and by this time I had been performing the work for quite a while, and after my concert one of Gordon Croskey’s students, Nicola Hall came up to me saying how much she liked the piece, so I gave her a copy of the score. Later Nicola played the ‘Usher Waltz’ for John Williams during a private audience and he liked it so much that he ended up recording it too, and this is what really helped the ‘Usher Waltz’ gain so much recognition.
BC What are your thoughts on selecting a program for your concerts?
VB I like the programs to be interesting with many diverse styles, and hopefully this ends up being different from what the other guitarists are performing.
This season I played a program which incorporated the works of Rodrigo, Weiss, Koshkin, orchestral music like that of the Vivaldi Suite that I arranged, and the new work by Morel which was dedicated to me only three months ago.
I actually haven’t performed the ‘Usher Waltz’ in quite a long time because it seemed that so many people were performing it, so I put it away, and only recently have been bringing it back. It seems every few seasons there is certain repertoire that becomes too popular. I remember first it was the works of Villa-Lobos, and then it was the works of Barrios, then Piazolla, and then ‘Koyunbaba.’ It is all great music but can lose its appeal if too many performers have it in their programs. So I am very conscious and careful of what music goes into my programs.
BC Can you tell us about the guitar festival in Brno?
VB Yes, I am the founder of this festival and this year marks its 22nd year. It has gained recognition as one of the most important Guitar Festivals in Europe.
The first six years we were in a very small place because it was just starting out, but after that period we had to move the festival to the city of Brno where we have much more room to accommodate all of the students, performers, venders, and there are many fine halls for the concerts. The New City Hall which hosts the majority of the nightly concerts has incredible acoustics, and the ceiling is a great painting similar to that of the Sistine Chapel and greatly adds to the atmosphere of the festival.
The festival attracts around 150 students from all over the world, where each student attends classes on guitar history, performance, lectures by luthiers , ensemble playing, and they also have the opportunity to study privately and in master-classes with some of the biggest names in guitar like Marcin Dylla, Judicael Perroy, Stepan Rak, Roland Dyens, and Scott Tennant to name a few of the festivals past Artist’s.
Each night of the festival there is a concert, and it has become a tradition that we open with a Flamenco concert in Castle Spielberk. I always like to invite an Andalucian Flamenco Group because I feel that real Flamenco can only be played by Andalucian Gypsies, and this really helps to set the festival off with an energy and excitement for the week to come.
The festival is also home to the ‘Guitar Talent’ International Competition which hosts 60 competitors from around the world and includes a junior and senior division. The grand prize for the senior division is a Masaki Sakurai-Kohno Concert instrument and an artist package that equals to € 8,000.
BC What does the future have in store for Vladislav Blaha?
VB I am so busy that I can usually only concentrate on the closest future where I have the rest of my concerts in the US, and then two days after I get back to the Czech Republic I will have some concerts in Kiev and Gomel. Beginning in June is the summer Guitar Festival’s where I will be in Heinsberg Germany, Hungary, Belarus, France, and then in August at my Festival in Brno.