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Tuesday, November 28, 2023


Famed concert violinists are known for playing on instruments made in the 1700s by renowned master craftsmen in obscure Italian villages.
Acclaimed concert guitarist Dennis Koster plays on one made last year by "a brilliant 26-year-old genius" in Boston. And it's such a fine one, he says, that he uses it to play both classical and flamenco music – two very different and demanding genres.
Koster, who will perform at the St. John School of the Arts on Thursday, Dec. 28, received the guitar shortly after he made similar appearances here between the Christmas and New Year's holidays a year ago. It's the second built for him by the young man, Aaron Green by name.
"I've been working with him since he was 19," Koster says of Green. "The one I played last year was the first he built for me." The guitarist explains that the young artisan approached him about a collaboration following a concert in Boston. "He sends his guitars to me and has me try them out and give him feedback on playing under different acoustical circumstances in various concert halls and other venues," Koster explains.
The parallel between artist and artisan is striking: In the new millennium, Koster is preserving centuries-old music forms while Green is carrying on the ancient tradition of creating the instruments to perform them.
Now in his 40s, Koster was a teenager himself when he took up the study of guitar – flamenco first. As a promising pupil, he was accepted to study under Mario Escudero, considered the father of modern flamenco. Escudero was a protégé of Madrid's Ramon Montoya, credited with taking flamenco guitar from the status of folkloric accompaniment to solo instrument in the world's finest recital halls.
Although it was clear he had a career in flamenco, both performing as solo artist and accompanying several well-known Spanish dance companies, Koster decided at 21 to study classical guitar as well.
For him, as an American not of Hispanic descent, "flamenco was distinctly the music of another culture," he reflects. "I also wanted to relate my love of guitar to the music of the European masters." Again, he proved himself an adept pupil, studying under José Luis Rodrigo in Madrid and Julio Prol and Jerry Willard in New York. His 1975 debut as a classical soloist at Carnegie Recital Hall was lauded by The New York Times as a "brilliant, aptly fantastic performance."
Having thus charted a new course in the classical realm, he says with a chuckle, "Then I realized how much I missed flamenco."
He resolved the dilemma with what has proven to be a happy marriage of the two.
While the genres are distinct, each with its own repertoire, technique and tradition, they make for good company, Koster says: "People underestimate how majestic classical guitar can be. Flamenco underscores the serenity and majesty of the classical. And classical underscores the fiery passion of the flamenco."
In the '80s he had the rare opportunity to study with Augustín Castellón, the legendary "Sabicas," recognized as the greatest flamenco virtuoso of all time. He won the master's praise as "an exceptional interpreter of my compositions."
In both the flamenco and classical realms, Koster has contributed significantly to the repertoire, composing new works and arranging others in tribute to Sabicas and Escudero, and transcribing solo works written for piano and violin by the European masters.
Koster's coming St. Thomas and St. John performances include a number of these works that he also performed a year ago. The most notable addition, he says, is the Chaconne in D minor written by J.S. Bach for violin, "Bach's greatest work for solo instrument, first played on guitar by Andrés Segovia. Every classical guitarist plays his own version of it, and it has a very interesting connection to Spanish music that I am going to explain before I play it."
Last year, Koster says, he came to the islands expecting "more of a resort audience, very casual," feeling that "perhaps my program might be a little heavy." He was delighted to discover that not only were both concerts sold out, but that "from very early on in the performance, the audience was not only with me but very knowledgeable."
He credits that in part to the contributions of St. Thomas guitarist James Anderson (of Dos Guitarras) toward the appreciation of classical and Spanish music in the community.
To his own credit, Koster makes it easy for his listeners, introducing the various pieces with light background commentary, especially explaining the various flamenco forms and their significance. "After several years of doing stiff, formal performances," he says, "I decided it was a lot more interesting to engage the audience by providing anecdotal references."
Thus listeners learn of saetas, traditional gypsy Easter songs; soleares, an ancient flamenco form with a 12-beat compas, or meter; bulerías, the fastest version of the 12-beat compas, named for the Spanish verb burlarse (to poke fun at) because flamenco artists would traditionally joke with each other in improvised lyrics; siguiriyas, a primitive form with a complex compas; falsetas, the flamenco equivalent of jazz riffs; and granadinas, the fandango of Spain's Granada region.
"Today, flamenco has become much more pop-influenced," Koster says. "I feel that I am keeping the traditional forms alive."
A faculty member at the American Institute of Guitar, he is the author of a three-volume instructional manual used worldwide and has collaborated since the '80s with composer Samuel Zyman at the Juilliard School.
His CD "Flamenco Clásico" was a best seller. A new album of his own arrangements of piano works by Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schumann and Brahms was scheduled for release in "early 2001." However, he says, it appears now that CD won't be out until the fall.
Ticket information: St. John School of the Arts, Thursday, Dec. 28, 8 p.m. Tickets 25 general admission, $15 for students with I.D., available at Connections. Pre-purchase recommended due to limited seating. For more information, call 779-4322 or 776-6777.

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