When Lily Afshar came to the United States from Iran in 1977, she had no idea it was possible to study guitar in college. Just by chance, she stumbled into the Boston Conservatory where she began to realize her dream.
In 1989 she earned her doctorate in guitar performance from Florida State University and became the first woman in the world to do so. Her thesis tied together two of her passions: art and the guitar. On her new recording, Musica de Camera, Afshar is joined by colleagues at the University of Memphis as she explores the relationship between literature and the guitar.
"I always like to do something new for my CDs, and always do premieres," Afshar explains, "So for this piece by Vladislav Uspensky, Musical Sketches on Pushkin's Eugene Onegin, I got the group together they're all Memphis musicians, a lot from the faculty at the University of Memphis, and it's a great combination of instruments. Here we have the strings plus drums and clarinet with guitar. So it became a world premiere recording."
Uspensky was a 20th-century Russian composer who studied with Dmitri Shostakovich and eventually became Professor of Composition at the St. Petersburg Conservatory. He wrote the Musical Sketches on Pushkin's Eugene Onegin, in 1990 as a commentary on Alexander Pushkin's famous 19th-century novel, which also inspired an opera by Tchaikovsky. Each of the eight sketches reflects a character or scene in this tragic love story, which opens with a coquettish "Ball."
Lily Afshar is joined by violinist Tim Shiu for Paganini's Sonata Concertante. It's the only piece written by the legendary 19th-century violinist that gives both instruments virtuosic parts.
Ashfar believes her performance is enhanced by that of her colleague. "A lot of the recordings I've heard of this piece, people just want to play it fast. The second movement has so much give-and-take with it he really takes his time with it and makes me also do the same."
The recording closes out with Piazzolla's History of the Tango. As the title suggests, each movement describes the evolution of this Argentine dance.
"The first movement is 'Bordel 1900,'" Afshar explains, "And it begins with a knocking on the guitar, which is really the police knocking. And then there's this commotion and the piece starts as if people are...they weren't supposed to be playing or dancing tango. There's all this chaos happening.
"In 'Cafe 1930,' it begins with the guitar solo, very romantic, beautiful piece. And then the violin joins in. It's beautiful give-and-take. We added a lot of portamentos, a lot of rubato to make this as romantic as possible. Portamento is a sigh between two notes. It's not written in the music oftentimes, and it's up to the performer to add it. When the distance between two notes increases, you can do a lot more. Singers do it all the time. Violinists do it and guitarists, if we do it in the right place, it gives it a beautiful flavor, as if the guitar is singing.
"Segovia was great at that. I remember when I played for him, he added, with a green pen, portamentos in the music. So I learned that that's an important part of playing the guitar. To add it in the right place, it really makes it lyrical."
After listening to Andres Segovia's music for years while growing up in Iran, Lily Afshar says studying with him was very comfortable, like meeting an old friend.
For the past 24 years, Afshar has called Memphis home. Serving as chair of the guitar department at the University of Memphis has allowed her the flexibility to learn and grow as a musician.
"Before I moved here, I didn't know anything about Memphis. But of course when I found out Elvis's home was here, Graceland that was exciting to me because I used to watch his films as a kid in Iran. I had a crush on him I loved him. I've been there several times and I love the vibrancy of the music scene in Memphis. I love the record company I've worked with. I've released 3 CDs with them so far, Archer Records. And it's just that I feel like I'm free and can develop here and am reaching my goals."