The website of classical guitarist David Tanenbaum

Interview with David Tanenbaum

by Freddie Holmberg

This is an edited and excerpted version of an interview that appeared in the Swedish guitar magazine Gitarr och Luta, Årgång 31, No. 3. It was translated by Nina Holmberg.

David Tanenbaum was, along with Mats Bergström, a teacher of master classes during the Guitar festival held in Stockholm June 15-17. As a good friend of David Tanenbaum I was asked to tell a little bit more about him.

Active from early morning till late night, always nice and gentle and positive to everything and everyone is a description of one the greatest guitarist in the world today, David Tanenbaum.

In the summer of 1984 I received a scholarship to study guitar in the USA. My duo partner Åke Berglund and I had been urged to contact David Tanenbaum, teacher at the Conservatory of Music in San Francisco, and he had accepted us as students. That was the start of a long, close and warm friendship that continues despite the long distance. We call each other on the phone and e-mail almost every week, and meet each other every year during one of his many European tours. He also tries to get some time for a visit to my small village, Broby, in the north of Skåne, which is ridiculously spoiled with concerts by this great artist.

David was one of those infant prodigies who started his career very early. He was born in 1956 and was brought up in the calm suburb of New Rochelle, outside New York City. His mother is a piano teacher and his father a composer and teacher at the Manhattan School of Music in N.Y. David started to take piano lessons early from his mother and had of course great opportunities to listen to music in his home, especially modern music.

“I crawled around in the living room to music of Stockhausen, and when Robert Moog introduced the synthesizer our family went to rent the first one,” says David. It´s not surprising that the adult David Tanenbaum often chooses modern music for his concert repertoire, and that he´s become one of the greatest masters to produce especially modern music on his instrument.

Why the guitar and not piano, the instrument he started with? Like so many other youngsters, David lost interest in the classical piano and instead developed an interest in rock, pop and electric guitar. But David´s father encouraged his son´s interest in the guitar and helped get him interested in studying music with the guitar as his major instrument. “The guitar had a repertoire my parents didn’t know so much about and couldn’t interfere with. Than it became fun again to practice.”

During his student years in Baltimore David got to know Carlos Turiago, today a well known Colombian pianist. Carlos was some years older than David and had already taken his degree when David started his first year. “Carlos came to replace my father in a way during my schooling with his great interest in modern music.” Together with Carlos, David listened to and discussed records through many nights. One of the pieces Carlos made David enthusiastic for was Henze´s El Cimarron. “I was determined to play that piece one day.” Eight years later he played in the first English performance of El Cimarron.  Some years later Henze was visiting California and David got the chance to meet him and play Royal Winter Music  for him. But David was interrupted by Henze, after the first movement, saying: “Fantastic, absolutely fantastic! You understand this music completely!” “It wasn’t easy to go on playing after that,” David remembers.

That started a collaboration between Henze, David and the Ensemble Modern of Frankfurt, in which Henze dedicated a piece to David, An Eine Åolsharfe.  The piece was premiered in 1986 in Luzerne for Henze´s 60th birthday. David and his wife Julie were visiting us for a whole month as David was studying the piece. The last movement came just a week before the concert! We then had the chance to go to Frankfurt to listen to the second performance. It was a fantastic feeling to first have been listening to the preparation and then to hear the final result. And after the performance, being part of a standing ovation with an excited large audience was a rather unusual experience for a Swedish concert visitor, especially if we talk about classical guitar…..

David is generally more interested in works by non-guitarists. “I feel like it´s often easier for them to make a beautiful sound out of the guitar than a guitarist-composer can.” David says, and gives examples like Henze´s Tentos, all Takemitsu pieces, new pieces from Sculthorpe and Tippet´s “Blue Guitar”. He even goes so far as to say that if he would make a list of the twenty five best guitar pieces ever written, none would, according to him, be written by a guitarist. “I have of course all respect for pieces written by guitarist-composers. I only express my own personal views and feelings.” David emphasizes.

What is then good music to David? “Well, that´s a big and difficult question to answer. There is probably no objective standard answer to that; it’s hard to even define what ‘music’ means. All my major teachers told me that the most important element of music is rhythm, and I believe them now. But what´s beyond that is hard to describe. There is simply something undefined and mysterious that lets us feel more for one piece of music than for another,” David says.

Let us then add a similar explanation about his playing: There is something undefined and mysterious that makes you to love his production of tunes on the guitar. You don´t have to say more. It can only be felt. And we only wish more Swedes get the chance to experience that mysterious feeling.

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