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Emre Gökalp - Classical guitar


1- Your first classical guitar teacher was Ahmet Kanneci. Can you tell us more about this mentor and the influences he left with you?

To answer this question I need to go back to the very beginning. My father was an opera singer. One of the finest voices I have ever heard in my life. He performed all the leading tenor roles in almost all of the important operas; La Traviata, Tosca and many others. Because of some circumstances, he had to quit his job but he never gave up searching for other ways to enjoy music. When I was at the age of 7 he started playing the guitar. I was quite jealous of him spending time with his guitar instead of playing games with me or tell me stories. To get the attention I needed at the age of 7, I started playing the guitar myself. Since he is a musician, he immediately understood I had a talent for this instrument and my age was still very young. I started taking lessons at a random guitar course and developed very rapidly in just a few months. Then my father decided we should look for a proper teacher and focus my education on learning this instrument. We had a classical guitar method written by Ahmet Kanneci and there was a contact number on its back cover. My father did a little research and quickly realised that Mr. Kanneci was actually one of the most important figures for the classical guitar in the history of Turkey. We have contacted him and he was very kind to invite us to his guitar studio to listen to me. Our relationship started from there and 21 years later I would still consider myself a student of his. I am very lucky to have him as my mentor for 2 decades now. Even though I have moved to London, we still keep in touch and I always ask for his suggestions before almost every concert, recording or project that I have in mind. He has studied with some of the most important classical guitarists and mentors around the world. He started playing the guitar after hearing Maestro Alirio Diaz perform the Concierto de Aranjuez by Rodrigo and immediately fell in love with the instrument. They had a very good relationship for 40 years after meeting at that concert. Also, he studied with Jose Thomas in Spain and Julian Byzantine in the UK. He had the chance to take around 20 lessons from the legendary classical guitarist Andres Segovia. He also studied science during his high school years then studied architecture in the University. His painting skills are remarkable as well. That makes Ahmet Kanneci a complete artist. Because when we are working on a piece of music together, he doesn’t only focus on the musical elements. He can actually create a much larger image with the characteristics of the era such as; influences of the painters or architectural elements which is almost like going back in time and experiencing the period of the music we work on. He is one of the most creative people I had the good fortune of knowing. Without him, I wouldn’t be able to become the musician I am today.

2- Is your family musical?

We have got many artists in the family. As I have mentioned before, my father used to be an opera singer and my mother is an actress. My uncle also happens to be an actor. I have 2 aunts, one of them is a cellist and the other one is a pianist. So, yes! I didn’t have much choice but to go in that direction. I am glad that I did.

3- What was the first prize you won in a competition and can you remember what you played?

It was in de Orleans, France in 1999. I was about 10 or 11 years old. I remember the set piece was titled Scherzo (Playful) but cannot remember who the composer was. If I am not wrong, there were some free choice pieces that we had to play so I have played an Etude by Fernando Sor. I have won the first prize and they have awarded me a classical guitar.

4- Have you participated in many competitions and what is the most recent competition you have won?

To be perfectly honest, I haven’t done too many because I find the competitions to be uncomfortable to perform. They are very different than concerts. When I was young I was doing some and getting prizes but it was actually affecting my playing. I have participated in one of the most prestigious competitions called “The Parkening International Guitar Competition” in USA, 2015. It is, I would say, the equivalent of major classical music competitions like Tchaikovsky Competition. Many classical guitarists from all around the world have sent audition videos to participate and I was chosen as one of the 15 competitors from 11 different countries. I wasn’t able to perform as good as I could because of many factors but three of the competitors were chosen to represent the competition in recognition of their musicianship and artistry in the “Salon Concert Series” and awarded a diploma, including me. I had a wonderful time meeting with so many great musicians like Maestro Christopher Parkening himself and many amazing classical guitarists from my generation with whom we became good friends. The most recent competition I have won is the 1st International Guitar Competition “Paris Guitar Foundation”. PGF was founded by Augustin Pesnon and has been actively broadcasting live concerts, masterclasses, and many other guitar related activities on their Facebook page. Also, they are producing some wonderful videos of great guitar players like Roland Dyens, Judicael Perroy, Gabriel Bianco, Yamandu Costa and many others on their Youtube channel. The prize of this competition was a video production as well. I have been to Paris for the audio recording which was done by sound engineer Florent Passamonti. Then Augustin Pesnon, who is also the director of all the PGF videos, came to London to shoot the video. I feel very privileged to get to work with such professionals.

5- In 2009, you took leave to go to London where you took private classical guitar lessons from Professor Michael Lewin, head of the Guitar Department of the Royal Academy of Music. Can you tell us about this clearly important period of training and how it was like to be trained by this master?

It actually changed the direction of my life to aim for bigger dreams. When I went to London in 2009, I went there to have some advanced level language lessons and was going to the Royal Academy of Music -my dream school at the time- to see some open public events. During a masterclass, given by David Leisner, I have seen someone sitting in the front row who looked very familiar to me. I went there in the break and it happened to be the person who won the 1st prize in a competition in Velingrad, Bulgaria in the adult category back in 2002; Stanislav Hvartchilkov. I have won the 1st prize in my age category as well in the same competition and we have met on that occasion. We went to Academy’s canteen for a coffee and started talking about the old days. Then he invited me for a dinner at his and we became very good friends. Stanislav has graduated from RAM and has offered to introduce me to Michael Lewin and suggested that it would be a very good opportunity to take some private lessons from him. With Stanislav’s recommendation, Professor Lewin kindly accepted to take me as a private student and I started taking lessons from him. He is an incredible teacher. I have learned what it means and what it takes to be a professional musician from him. He is a unique mentor who can teach you how to find your musical personality. During the time I have spent in London, we have worked on pieces by Bach, Lobos, Sor, Walton and with each lesson, I have realised how enjoyable it actually is to discover so many new and brilliant ideas. It was the first time I have focused properly on phrasing, articulations, dynamics and learned how to approach a piece of music with respect to the composer. Then he invited me to Scandiano, Italy where he was giving masterclasses. I have taken more lessons from him in Scandino and done solo and chamber music performances during the week that we stayed there. After that, I went back to Turkey but I wanted to learn more from him. After I graduated from Hacettepe Ankara State Conservatory in Turkey I went to London and applied for Master of Arts programme at the Royal Academy of Music to study with him. I was accepted and got a scholarship from Borusan Kocabıyık Foundation which made it possible for me to study in London. I happen to be the first “Turkish classical guitarist” who has graduated from this institution.

6- Can you share with us an abiding memory in connection with one of your performances or competitions?

My final recital at the Royal Academy of Music is a significant one for me. Even though the Academy is one of the greatest institutions to study music, there is a lot of pressure going on as well. From the beginning of my studies I was constantly being reminded how important the final recital is and that we need to get a high mark to get a distinction etc.. But for this particular performance I was able to overcome that idea. My programme included some of the most difficult pieces of the guitar repertoire. I have played pieces by Bach, Paganini, Rodrigo, Tansman and Walton. Instead of focusing on how difficult it was or that I am going to get marked, I have focused on the audience and how lucky I am to share my understanding of music with others. I have been awarded a DipRAM for “an outstanding final recital” at the end.

7- You performed in various music festivals around the world including Machyntlleth Music Festival and Hass Guitar Fest 2016. How was the atmosphere and your feelings at the time?

I was invited to Machyntlleth Music Festival in 2015 by the great pianist Julius Drake who was the artistic director of the festival. This wonderful event has been going on for several years and always has some incredible musicians coming to perform, give master classes and lectures from all around the world. I had the pleasure of sharing the same stage with some of the finest musicians I know. There were different concepts every afternoon, evening and sometimes at night. Some of the performances included a jazz night concert by John Etheridge (jazz guitar), Cris Garrick (violin), a late night Bach concert by Nicolas Altsteadt (cello), Barnabas Kelemen (violin) and Schubert’s Winterreise by Sir John Tomlinson (bass) and Julius Drake himself. I have performed a Saturday late night concert titled “Spanish Guitar” included pieces by Torroba, Malats, Falla, Albeniz, Rodrigo, Tarrega and Granados. It was one of the most enjoyable moments of my life. It really is hard to find a decent hall to perform classical guitar since it is a very intimate instrument but I can say “The Tabernacle” in Machyntlleth is the perfect hall for it. The hall has been converted from a chapel which made the acoustic incredible. You could hear even if someone dropped a needle on the ground. That made it undoubtedly the best hall I have performed in so far. The atmosphere was simply amazing.

“Hass” in Hass Guitar Fest stands for Hearing Art, Seeing Sound. It was actually a part of International Art and Music Collaboration Festival which took place in Yerevan, Armenia. The artistic director was Van Sarkissian with whom I have met and became friends during our studies at the Royal Academy of Music. Van’s idea of the festival was to remove borders between countries with the power of art. We have stayed at a villa with 20-25 musicians who were taking part in the festival. It was one of the unique experiences I had in my life. I have performed a solo recital at the Cafejian center for the Arts which is one of the most important art platforms in Armenia. The lighting and the view of this hall was amazing. It was a very relaxed environment which made it very easy to connect with the audience and to enjoy the performance. It was also very special for me since I am one of the few Turkish musicians to perform in such an important venue in Armenina. It is not very common because of the complicated history between the two countries but this performance was serving the purpose of the festival perfectly. Along with some of the mainstream classical repertoire I have played two Anatolian Pieces by the composer Ertugrul Bayraktar and following these Turkish tunes I have played the Armenian composer Komitas’ Vagharshapat Dance as the encore. I have received some wonderful comments afterwards. Rafael Aguirre who is one of the leading classical guitarists of our generation has given a wonderful solo recital the day after. The concept of the Art festival was to compose and premiere some brand new pieces based on paintings by Armenian artists. There were composers and performers from USA, China, United Kingdom, France, Spain, Switzerland, Brasil, Croatia, Armenia and Turkey. We have premiered a piece called “Circles” by Kristina Arakelyan based on the painting of Sonia Balassanian with my dear colleague, award-winning guitarist Srdjan Bulat. Additionally, I have given some master classes to young guitar players. Overall, it was an unforgettable festival which I hope happens again in the future.

8- How often do you practice?

In normal conditions, I would spend at least 2 and a half hours practicing a day. 1 hour on my technique and the rest on the pieces I am supposed to play or record for the upcoming project. My warm up starts with 120 arpeggios written by Mauro Giulliani and then I move to 24 scales written by Andres Segovia. But I wasn’t doing this until recent years. Then, I have read in an interview which the Maestro Segovia was asked what would he do if he had only 2 hours to spend on the guitar and he answered “scales for 2 hours”. Also, David Russell always stresses the importance of a warm-up routine in his masterclasses, as well. Those are some of the greatest guitar players of all times and they have a warm up routine. I thought, I should give it a try. It became an irreplaceable part of my daily practice routine now. In addition to that, sometimes I read new pieces or arrange a piece for guitar, listen to music, go through my repertoire in detail then play them as if I am performing for several times. It can take from 2 to even 10 hours sometimes. Depends if I have time to actually focus on it.

9- Would you consider teaching music in the future?

I am currently teaching, privately. Also, doing cover lessons for other teachers when they are absent from time to time. I had wonderful teachers throughout my guitar studies and learned a lot of valuable ideas from them. I try my best to share those with my students in my own way.

10- Who is your favourite musician and why?

I was watching an online interview the other day with the Polish classical guitarist Marcin Dylla and he was asked the same question. I really liked his answer; he said “My favourite musician is me in 10 years”. When the 10 years passes his favourite musician still remains himself in another 10 years and it goes on like that. So, he never reaches that point and this always leaves room for progression. The human mind is programmed to compare and you can’t have a favourite musician without having to compare one to others. But I find the comparison to be against the nature of music. First of all, there are so many different kinds of musicians and genres of music. There are composers, conductors, instrumentalists, singers etc.. I honestly can’t say Placido Domingo is “better” than Luciano Pavorotti or Julian Bream is better than John Williams or Herbert von Karajan is better than Gustavo Dudamel, because their styles are extremely different from one another and which makes it an incredible experience to listen to any of them. That is the beauty of music, the variety.

11- How do you balance your study, performance and leisure times? What are the biggest sacrifices?

We have just moved to London with my wife a couple of months ago. I cannot say I am doing great with managing my time these days but in normal conditions, it is very easy. First of all, you need to know what your priorities are. I am grateful for the guitar for many reasons. First of all, I love it. I have travelled to more than 10 countries, met with so many amazing people just because I was playing the guitar. It was the reason that I first came to London and it also provided me and my wife the opportunity to live here. So, it has a very important role in my life. That’s why I feel like I am sacrificing valuable time when I am out going to a café, shopping, surfing the internet instead of practicing. But whenever I spend at least 2-3 hours on guitar I don’t feel guilty to go out and enjoy the other activities that I like doing. Priorities and responsibility are the keywords, in my opinion.

12- Are there future projects you would like to share with us?

There will be a “Sunday Live Concert” with Paris Guitar Foundation. We are still working on setting up a date. There are local concerts that I am arranging at the moment and another one with Canterbury Guitar Society in November. I am currently working on arranging some chamber music projects with my friends, pianist Jun Tyler, guitarist Srdjan Bulat and Michael Butten. Other than the concerts scheduled and chamber music projects, I am planning to record my first album very soon. Hopefully in May if everything goes according to plan.

To return to Emre’s profile:

submission April 2017