Wednesday 15 August 2012 | By Chris Cooke
Jonathan Prag: The secrets of classical guitar
Jonathan Prag has been delighting Fringe crowds with his classical guitar recitals for many years now, as well as earning wholehearted approval from a number of our reviewers. So we felt it was high time we found out more about his work, his shows, and what keeps him coming back to the Fringe.
CC: Welcome back for another year at the Fringe! What keeps bringing you back to the Edinburgh Festival?
JP: One thing is the city itself – the atmosphere and the audiences being so varied and friendly. Then there is the opportunity the Fringe gives you to perform an extended run. That’s pretty unique to here and, for me, that has helped me to develop as a performer because it gives you ‘match practice’ if you like – the real thing, and if the audience don’t like it they won’t come back. One-off performances don’t give you that kind of experience. And an element in this is the relationship you develop with audience members who come back year after year. They come and speak to me after the performances and it’s lovely to recognise them.
CC: How do you select the pieces you play each year?
JP: I go with my instincts and my interests. For the first few years I came, I was afraid to depart from the classical repertoire but now I’m a bit bolder so if I really like something I’ll find a classical guitar arrangement and I’ll play it. I try to find unusual things that will kind of surprise me. I’ve always loved Baroque music, Bach particularly, then I started exploring folk music – I had a big Turlough O’Carolan phase a while back – then South American, and these days I’ve got into things like Cole Porter and Gershwin.
CC: Tell us about this year’s selection.
JP: I read about Bartok and his love of folk music, and then listened to amazing violin and piano versions of his ‘Romanian Folk Dances’, and thought: could the guitar do that? And then I found K Minami’s guitar arrangement. It’s incredibly difficult to play but I’ve been slaving away practising it for months and I find more and more in it. The audience seems to like it too. ‘The Goose And The Bright Love’ is a beautiful Irish folk melody. And I love blues – hence the choice of ‘Left Alone’, the Mal Waldron piece, for when they want an encore. The Piazzolla tango’s one of my favourites – I’m still in a South American phase – but then again – so is the Paco Peňa piece I close with. I went to see him perform recently. He’s just awe-inspiring.
CC: Our reviewers say that your music creates a really special atmosphere, is your choice of venue important in helping make this happen?
JP: Yes it is. Acoustically I need to find a venue that allows the guitar to be heard from the loud crashing bits of the flamenco down to the tiny harmonics in ‘Spanish Dance No. 2’ by Granados. C too – the church – is great for that. You can hear a pin drop. I think the audience appreciates that. I think when there are no noise distractions the music sometimes just takes on a kind of life of its own as everyone in the room focuses on it, and I’ve had people come up afterwards and say they had goose bumps. It’s all down to the acoustic quality of the room.
CC: I always think of music as the hidden secret of the Fringe – would you agree?
JP: When I first started playing here I didn’t feel that, but now it might be truer, what with the huge growth of the comedy side of things. By comparison, little is made of the music and yet there are some incredible musicians here.
CC: What would you say to someone who has never been to a concert like yours?
JP: That’s a very good question – the classical guitar has a great range of sounds and colours and the effect surprises people who hear it for the first time. Some people think that maybe there is a backing track playing, or a second guitarist hidden behind a screen, because they don’t see how one pair of hands could be doing all the different things they can hear. If people think of classical guitar as very specialised or difficult or unapproachable I’d say just give it a try. It’s an instrument that can render folk music, the Blues, Flamenco and Cole Porter equally well. I’d say to them just come along – it’s a very friendly atmosphere.
CC: You play lots of different festivals – how does Edinburgh compare?
JP: It’s simply the biggest of all by a long way, and the best! And it’s in the most amazing place.
CC: You also teach guitar, do you enjoy the teaching as much as performing?
JP: Well, that’s hard to answer, because to see pupils go from beginner up to grade 6 or 7 over several years is really rewarding, and I couldn’t just give them up, but performing is amazing because I find that sometimes during performance things in the music suddenly reveal themselves – and I’m not sure how to explain it. It’s like you suddenly see something there that you hadn’t seen before and it alters the way you play it from then on. When you work so hard and practise until you’re blue in the face, and then it all comes together in a performance and you engage with the audience, it is just incredible. It can go wrong as well of course – it’s always a risk and that’s frightening if you think about it too much. So, compared with that, teaching is safer but if I really did have to give one up completely it would be teaching not performing. Luckily I don’t though!
CC: How much practice would I need to do to get anywhere near as good as you?
JP: Well, I practise for between four and six hours a day, every day. If you were starting from scratch that wouldn’t be practical or wise, so maybe ten minutes a day until your fingers developed thick enough skin on the ends to stop it being agony and then increase it from there until your hands develop the strength to stretch and hold down difficult chords. I have to admit that it is a bit painful, but if you could get through that you could progress as fast as you wanted to. The thing is not to try to do too much too soon; take it one step at a time. But you never stop learning. I still feel as if I’m nowhere near what’s possible.
CC: Are there any other music shows you’d recommend at this year’s Fringe?
Mary Coughlan at Queen’s Hall, Richard Thompson, same venue; Luca Villani at Valvona And Crolla, Moishe’s Bagel at the Acoustic Music Centre, Carolyn Anona Scott,= at The Royal Oak and also at Acoustic Music Centre, the Caledonian Folk And Blues at the Guildford Arms and Antonio Forcione (Assembly, George Square) who has all kinds of other incredible musicians on with him. Sean Shibe at Royal Overseas League doing ‘Piazzolla Late’ and I would have said ‘Bar At Buena Vista Presents El Rey’ – but I see it’s been cancelled.
Jonathan Prag performed at C too at Fringe 2012.