The dynamic flute-guitar duo plays everything from Bach to tango
By Robert Calvert
Flute and guitar: a delightful duo, though perhaps not as familiar a combination as it should be. This is odd.
After all, many notable composers played the guitar, and some of them wrote for the instrument. Hector Berlioz (who also played the flute), Mauro Giuliani, Nicolò Paganini (better known as a violinist), Fernando Sor, Francisco Tárrega, Carl Maria von Weber, and Franz Schubert all were guitarists. (There’s some question about Schubert. He may or may not have written guitar accompaniments for some of his songs, but having shared lodgings with a poet and guitarist named Mayrhofer, Schubert surely was well acquainted with the guitar.) And of course, they all knew the flute. Even so, the guitar chamber music repertoire—and flute-guitar duo music— is not as familiar as the extensive piano trio, string quartet, or woodwind quintet literature. It’s a pity.
Guitarist Denis Azabagic puts it this way: “The relationship between classical music and the guitar repertoire is like the relationship between a planet and its satellite— like the relationship between the earth and the moon.”
Azabagic and his wife, flutist Eugenia Moliner, are doing what they can to bring the celestial guitar-flute repertoire closer to the mother planet. Performing as the Cavatina Duo, they travel the world introducing audiences to music for flute and guitar, and they are commissioning and recording new works for the combination as well.
Moliner is a native of Valencia, Spain. She studied at the Conservatorio Superior de Música Joaquín Rodrigo in her home town, and later at the Rotterdam Conservatorium, where she obtained degrees in solo performance and chamber music.
Curiously, Eugenia nearly became a vocalist rather than a flutist. “I always was singing,” she says. “I auditioned to the conservatory as a singer. My younger sister is a soprano.”
Eugenia maintained her interest in the vocal arts even after deciding to pursue a career as a flutist. While studying flute in the Netherlands she often attended classes for singers, and she reports that her interest in singing continues to influence her approach to flute music. This is not only as regards technique—breathing, for example—but in musical respects as well. “The best way to identify the phrase is to sing it—to understand the simplicity of the phrasing,” Eugenia asserts. Azabagic is a native of Bosnia. The guitar was not a particularly popular instrument in his native land when Denis was growing up. In those days, traditional instruments with a pan-Balkan or Middle-Eastern connection were better known, but as Bosnians began to hear music of the Beetles and other rock and roll performers, aware- ness of the guitar increased. In fact, Denis himself developed an interest in music through rock and roll. “My parents inscribed me in the music school,” he re- counts. “My first guitar teacher there was a fan of classical music. It was the influence of my teacher that inspired my love of classical music.” After studying in Bosnia, Denis headed off to the Netherlands to further his education. It was there that he met Eugenia. Before long, the young couple was making beautiful music together.
Eugenia, Denis, and their young son (a rising pianist) are based in Chicago today. Eugenia and Denis are on the faculty of the Chicago College of Performing Arts at Roosevelt University. As noted, the couple tours extensively as the Cavatina Duo.
There is a dearth of repertoire for flute-guitar duos, and searching for interesting works to play is part of performing. Eugenia and Denis have responded by commissioning transcriptions and new works.
The flute is a known quantity to composers, who learn the basics of how to write for it in orchestration courses. The technicalities of writing for the guitar are not so well understood. Indeed, when one finds a well written work for the guitar, it usually turns out that its composer has collaborated with a guitarist. Azabagic mentions Benjamin Britten’s collaboration with Julian Bream as an ex- ample of the phenomenon.
Denis sums up the challenge: “We strive to look for or commission pieces that feature the unique qualities of the guitar—as a partner, not just an accompaniment.”
Sometimes it is possible to transcribe the piano part of an existing work. That is the case with the Borne Carmen Fantasy. Eugenia’s flute part is precisely the same whether she performs the work with a pianist or with Denis. (She has recorded the work with piano.)
The couple also has encouraged composers to arrange existing guitar-only works for guitar and flute—to “find” the flute part in the music, as Eugenia puts it.
Eugenia and Denis perform Variations on “O cara armonia” from Mozart’s Magic Flute, composed by Fernando Sor for the guitar alone and arranged for flute and guitar by Alan Thomas. They also commissioned Mr. Thomas to write a Fantasy on Themes from Verdi’s La Traviata, which Thomas based on works for the guitar by Krakamp, Briccialdi, and Tárrega.
The two Thomas works are included on Cavatina at the Opera (Bridge Records, Inc.), Eugenia and Denis’s most recent recording. (You can purchase it through the usual online resources or directly from the publisher at bridgerecords.com.) A reviewer praised the CD: “Mo- liner not only matches Joan Sutherland’s peerless full- voiced lyricism in the Verdi but is able to do things with her flute that a soprano can only dream of. And Azabagic is her Richard Bonynge, so expressive, integral, and orchestral is his guitar....”
Another approach is to encourage composers to write works based on particular melodies. This is at the heart of the Cavatina Duo’s next recording project, The Sephardic Journey.
The Sephardim are the Jews of Spain, Portugal, North Africa, the Middle East, and their descendants. The Iberian Peninsula was home to a Jewish community from about the year 1000. In 1492, Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain forced Spanish Jews to convert to Christianity, leave the country, or be executed. (Columbus set sail for the new world on the day the Jews were expelled.) The Portuguese king followed suit in 1496. Many Spanish and Portuguese Jews only pretended to convert, continuing to practice their religion and to maintain their rich culture in secret over the centuries.
Denis and Eugenia have commissioned five composers— Clarice Assad, David Leisner, Carlos Rafael Rivera, Alan Thomas, and Joseph V. Williams II—to write works based on melodies of the Sephardim. You can read the amazing story of how they embarked on this project on their website at cavatinaduo.com/sephardic-journey.html.
The commissioned works are not all for flute-guitar duo. There is one piece for flute and guitar; two sextets with flute, guitar, and string quartet; and two trios, one with cello, flute, and guitar, and other with violin, alto flute, and guitar. The World Premier will be at the Ravinia Festival on March 12, 2016. Cedille Records, the Chicago-based recording company, will release a CD of the works, also in March 2016.
Cavatina Duo at the Chicago Flute Festival
Eugenia and Denis will be among the headline performers at the Chicago Flute Festival this coming November. Their program—titled Cavatina Duo at the Opera—will include works from their recent recording of opera transcriptions. In addition, they plan to play pieces included on a previous CD of Balkan music; several movements from Ástor Piazzolla’s Histoire du Tango, a work the Argentine tango master composed for flute and guitar; and the Sonata in E Major for Flute and Continuo by Johann Sebastian Bach.
The Cavatina Duo’s performance at the Chicago Flute Festival next November 14 promises to be a wonderful event for lovers of the flute, the guitar, and good music generally. Don’t miss it.