Xavier Jara Plays Wide-Ranging Classical Guitar Program

Kate Fishman, Managing Editor

Classical guitarist and winner of the Guitar Foundation of America’s Rose Augustine Grand Prize Xavier Jara, who performed in Kulas Recital Hall Wednesday night, not only demonstrated his instrument’s impressive time- and genre-crossing capacities, but also shed light on the community of classical guitarists and enthusiasts in Oberlin. Jara’s performance was in fact sponsored by the Oberlin Classical Guitar Association. After Jara gave a masterclass on Monday, he was joined by members of the OCGA — social media coordinator and double-degree senior Mohit Dubey; treasurer and double-degree senior Brian King; and OCGA member and double-degree sophomore Aidan Wiley Lippke — who talked about the poetic names their instrument has been assigned.

“Someone once called [the guitar] a tiny orchestra … who said that?” Dubey asked.

“It was God,” King replied, to general amusement.

Though the phrase was actually coined by guitarist Andrés Segovia, King’s joke wouldn’t have seemed off-base to the audience who attended Jara’s Wednesday night performance. The award-winning guitarist, not much older than the many Conservatory guitar majors in the audience, sat with his left foot suspended on a footrest, his instrument propped on his knee and nearly vertical. His left fingers jumped up and down the guitar’s neck while his right hand shimmered across the strings to produce a sound that was nothing short of orchestral.

“What the classical guitar actually is known for is the tone of the instrument just being so special,” Jara said. “Whereas a lot of steel strings or electric guitars will often be for accompaniment, just sort of back up music … polyphonic music on guitar is something we do a lot, which is several voices at once.”

The guitar is one of the few instruments that has a firm standing in the culture of classical music, yet remains a keystone of popular music. Professor of Classical Guitar Stephen Aron, who has been the faculty advisor for the OCGA since its inception in 1993, elaborated in an email to the Review.

“Many people attend classical guitar concerts [who] might not normally attend other classical concerts, even though the music may be every bit as sophisticated, complex, or opaque as one might find at a contemporary chamber music concert or symphonic program,” Aron wrote.

The primary work of the OCGA is to build on that accessibility, and to provide a voice and funding for a department that did not have the same level of institutional funding as others for a long time.

“The main thing we do is just concerts and masterclasses,” King said. “The concerts are obviously geared towards everyone. The masterclasses — I mean, anyone’s invited, of course, but the only people that play are the student members of the guitar studio.”

While the OCGA focuses exclusively on classical music — though not just guitar, as they will be bringing a flutist in as a guest judge for the James Stroud All-Ohio Classical Guitar Competition and Festival in the spring — many classical guitarists, including Jara, got their start playing popular music.

“I heard a mariachi band and I was like, ‘That’s what I want to do. Play mariachi music,’” he said. “And then my teacher happened to give me classical, and it just sort of stuck … It’s a physical sensation, which I really attached myself to. I mean, I was playing metal music, I was playing country music, I was playing bluegrass, I was playing classical, and all this different stuff. And then at a certain point, when I was 15, my dad died, actually. And I decided just to play classical for a while to sort of try and live off of this as a musician as best I could. So, at 15, I got really serious about classical guitar.”

When he was 14, renowned guitarist Judicaël Perroy came to his hometown in Minnesota for a concert. “I was so annoying. I was writing him on Facebook like, ‘Can we meet for a lesson, is that okay?’” Eventually, Jara ended up at Perroy’s hotel at 8 a.m. on the day after the concert. “He’s like … brushing his teeth and putting in his contact lenses,” Jara said. “And he gave me a great lesson, which was actually three hours, and he wouldn’t even charge me a cent for it. He said, ‘Hey, if you ever want to come to France I’ll help you out, I’ll help you get the visa, I’ll help you get a place to stay,’ and he did.”

The day he turned 18, Jara moved to France, where he lived for six years with Perroy as his mentor. He attended the Conservatoire de Paris and began participating in competitions, after receiving his Bachelor’s Degree. He has earned prizes at competitions including the 2014 Boston Guitarfest, the 2015 Gargano, Italy competition, and the 2016 Tokyo International Competition. After winning the Guitar Foundation of America’s highest prize, he did what he had been desperately wanting to do: stop competing. Since then, he has recorded his first album, acquired an upcoming book publication deal, and is now in the midst of a 60-concert tour that will span the United States as well as venues in Canada, Guatemala, Panama, Mexico, and possibly China.

“It’s really a nice life,” he said. “Playing concerts is so freeing, in the way that I can play what I want to play, and I don’t always have to play imposed music, I don’t have to think about what’s strategically best for a certain jury. I can just structure a concert in an artistic way, which is what I’ve always wanted to do. So I’m pretty happy with that.”

Jara’s emotion and artistry shone in even his first moments on stage. His eight-piece show at the Oberlin Conservatory began with a piece by 16th-century composer John Dowland, then jumped “about 200 years into the future,” and finally arrived at the 21st century compositions of Ohio native Jeremy Collins. Throughout the show, there was emphasis on classical guitar repertoire’s collaborative and interwoven nature — for example, Bach’s Concerto No. 1 in D Major, BWV 972 was an arrangement of Vivaldi’s work — and later, that arrangement was arranged for the guitar by Perroy, Jara’s mentor.

Such collaboration lies at the heart of the OCGA as well — it is made of people who are excited about what they love, love being excited about it, and endeavor to share it. As the OCGA members watched Jara’s performance, they turned to smile at one another, snapped their fingers, and bobbed their heads and shoulders along with tunes they knew well. It was pure, unadulterated musical excitement — and it will be repeated with performances later this year by Jorge Caballero, Benjamin Verdery, Matthew McAllister, Nigel North, the Cavatina Duo (Denis Azabagic and Eugenia Moliner), and James Piorkowski.

At the end of their interview, Dubey added, “We’re the best instrument. You should end the article with that.”

Jara laughed in agreement “And therefore, we’re the best.”