There's a thread of autobiography woven through Lily Afshar's Hemispheres, an album that not only touches repeatedly on the classical guitarist's Persian cultural heritage but also travels the globe almost as far and wide as her musical career has taken her. The ambitiously diverse program offers few familiar touchstones of the guitar repertoire -- composer Leo Brouwer's name is the principal one -- yet not a track goes by without causing the listener to marvel at the beauty of Afshar's tone and her mastery of the instrument's technique. It's no wonder that several of the pieces recorded here were written for Afshar by composers who found her performances inspiring; most of these works receive their world premieres on this album. Among them, Polish composer Gerard Drozd's Triptych and John Schneider's Prelude and Fugato both balance the guitar's lyrical possibilities with passages of intricate finger work, as if precisely to show off the breadth of Afshar's talents. Reza Vali -- born, like Afshar, in Iran -- takes the opportunity to explore the modes of traditional Persian music in his Gozaar (Calligraphy No. 5), asking Afshar to coax unusually evocative harmonies from her instrument, and Garry Eister's Fantasia on a Traditional Persian Song plays with quarter-tone tunings that allude to the distinctive sound of the seh-tar, a guitar-like instrument that Afshar adopts on the following track, Iranian composer Mortez Neydavood's Bird of Dawn. Adding in a variety of other short pieces that further enrich the scintillating palette, Lily Afshar has crafted an album that not only marks her as an artist to watch but also expands the horizons of any guitar aficionado who hears it.
by Scott Paulin, Barnes & Noble
These Hands Belong to the World
from Iranian.com: Sept. 12, 2009
by Ari Siletz
Lily Afshar will be one of the performers at the iranian.com music festival in San Francisco’s Palace of Fine Arts on September 26, 2009.
Try mentioning your Iranian background in a circle of cultured American friends. Instead of the usual questions about politics they may ask, “Do you know of Lily Afshar?” This is because Afshar is one of the world’s leading classical guitarists, with remarkable innovations furthering the influence of the instrument.
In fact, someone once asked Afshar herself where she was from. That “someone” was Maestro Andres Segovia, the terrifyingly eminent virtuoso authority on the classical guitar. The setting was a master class held in Los Angeles in 1986. A group of 12 young guitarists had been selected out of hundreds of international competitors vying for the honor of playing in front of the guitar legend, hoping for an approving nod. That simple nod or—God forbid—a shake of the head could begin or end a young artist’s career. If a performer could remain intensely focused on her art, keeping her mind and fingers from going rubbery in front of this ultimate say-so on the classical guitar, she was ready to take command of any audience. To showcase her skills, Afshar had chosen to include Sevilla by Isaac Albeniz—it would be futile to pick a less demanding piece, Segovia would spot artistic timidity before the first measure was played out. During a lyrical passage in Sevilla, the Maestro stopped Afshar. “Where are you from,” he asked.
Afshar is from a musical family. Her grandmother was a tar player, and her father was a violinist and a pianist (as well as pilot and engineer). Her romance with the classical guitar began at the age of ten when she first heard the instrument at a cousin’s house. The very next day her father got her a guitar and signed her up for private lessons, later enrolling her for night classes at the Tehran Conservatory of Music. Afshar remembers very clearly her father giving her instructions in music theory. He was the one who inspired her to aim for an international reputation. “There was nothing his daughter couldn’t do,” says Afshar. “He encouraged me to get to the top of my field and I ended up getting my doctorate and becoming the first woman in the world [italics mine] to get a doctorate in classical guitar performance.” With this degree of parental love and support, it is no wonder that on first hearing a Segovia recording as a child, Afshar said to herself, “If Segovia can do this, I can too.” Years later in 1986, she would sit in the presence of the great master himself, embracing her guitar; ready to show him that she is just as good. And she wasn’t nervous at all. She thought of Segovia as a grandfather. Family!
There is a photo of that event with grandpa Segovia coddling Afshar’s guitar like an infant grandchild. Aptly, Afshar had named her guitar “bambina:” Spanish for little baby girl. The artist, with her dark wavy hair accenting the rural colors of her dress, stands like a proud young mother, while onlookers crane their necks for a view of “bambina.”
Four successful guitar albums and a (recent) DVD later, with a Doctor of Music degree form Florida State University, Afshar now leads her own master classes. As she juggles a busy concert schedule with a professorship at the University of Memphis, she makes time to travel the world sharing her musical knowledge with aspiring future guitarists—it helps that she speaks five languages. During these travels she continues to soak up world cultures, heeding her own advice that a good musician must possess “loads of culture,” as it can be critical to music interpretation. Her concerts and master classes in Iran are always packed. “They love the guitar,” she says. “Everywhere I go, Kerman, Mashad, Shiraz, Tehran, there are youngsters coming to hear good music and to learn.” The problem she is attempting to address in Iranian classical guitar education is the lack of good editions of music with proper fingering. So the educator often carries her own editions in her suitcase. A related problem she has noted is that Iranian guitar students tend to borrow their interpretations from recordings, rarely relying on their own ideas. I think this may also have to do with the student trying to stay on the teacher’s good side. After all, this is how Afshar remembers preparing for that master class with Segovia, “...I knew what kind of things Segovia liked and what kind of musicianship he looked for…” While classroom diplomacy is universal, in Iran it can reach debilitating proportions. I have heard many good musicians trained in Iranian conservatories complain of being dinged in grades for breaking tradition. Perhaps breaking tradition is a fine art in itself, and Afshar aims to teach her students the right way to do it.
An important lesson in tradition breaking that Afshar teaches the classical guitar world is reflected in her choice of programming. Aren’t classical guitarists supposed to be playing the Bach Chaconne or the Fernando Sor Variations—or at worst a Lennox Berkeley Sonatina? Whoever heard of modifying your instrument with extra frets so that you could mess around with avaz e dashti in dastgah e shur? How dare she ask gifted composers to base their guitar compositions on Morgh e Sahar? Well she dares, and the result is fresh territory for the guitar, or rather a nostalgic return of the guitar to the territory of its birth. Afshar often makes a point of the last syllable in the word “guitar” being of Persian origin and she references physicist Michael Kasha’s works [see footnote] on the true origin of the guitar and other instruments whose names end in “tar.” Instruments as in the se-tar, which she plays.
Dr. Afshar has high praise for tar and se-tar virtuoso Hossein Alizadeh and popular se-tar singer Mohsen Namjoo, saying, “[They] are incredibly innovative and they have, each in their own way stretched traditional boundaries.” She also likes Keyvan Saket. “I love his Albinoni Adagio on the tar,” she declares. “It makes me cry. It’s the first time I hear a tar player playing Western pieces. He has incredible technique, but the great thing is that he plays the pieces just like the original and you think it was written for the tar and orchestra.”
As Afshar directs her musical energies to Persian instruments, it is highly likely that she will bring upheavals of her own to our classic traditions. Already challenging the standard se-tar techniques she says, “I think, the middle and ring fingers in combination with the index finger could create more arpeggios and strumming techniques than just using the index finger, just like it is done on the guitar.” Alizadeh occasionally does that already, but it took him years to get there. Standing on the shoulders of our tar and se-tar giants, and with the discipline of the classical guitar under her belt, Afshar is launching her se-tar adventures from higher grounds. She used to practice guitar 10 hours a day, and still practices 5 hours a day on top of her rehearsals with other musicians. At one point she had to cancel a concert because she injured a finger through overzealous practice. Her fierce drive keeps me eagerly anticipating what we may hear from her se-tar or Persia-inspired guitar a few years down the line. Another reason for my anticipation is that for the Afshar family, the sky has always been the limit, literally—Lily Afshar’s grandfather helped found Iran Air! He was one of the first Iranians at Columbia University. Her sister went to Harvard. Her father studied at Stanford. Two years ago, in recognition of her international artistic and academic stature, she was invited to perform at the highly regarded Fajr Music Festival in Iran. So she has the connections to hang out in the stratospheres of Iranian culture and contribute ideas to some of the Segovias of Persian music.
She may have had in mind her future contribution to our culture when she pondered Segovia’s difficult question, “Where are you from?” The young Afshar answered in the cultural context, “I am Persian.” And the master said to her, “Yes, I can see you have the flamenco spirit and the Persian blood in you,” going on to correctly predict, “She will be a beautiful celebrity.” What would Segovia have said if Afshar had said she was from Iran? That is a question she is in default of answering for History. What she has answered for Iran, however, can be seen in the hundreds who throng her in Vahdat Hall or other concert venues in Iran asking for autographs, or just to shake hands. The fans are so excited after hearing her that sometimes they press her hand too enthusiastically, making it necessary for her to wear a protective glove after concerts. So when you go backstage to congratulate her after the Iranian.com Music Festival, don’t press her hand too hard. Those hands belong to Iran, in fact they belong to the world.
Note: See Guitar Review #30 pages 2-12, 1968 for the original Michael Kasha article.
May 16, 2009
from Classical Guitar Magazine: May 2009
by Steve Marsh
Born in Tehran, Lily Afshar began playing the guitar when she was 10 years old and during her illustrious career has received many commendations and awards including first prize in the Guitar Foundation of America Competition, and three-time winner of the Annual ‘Premier Guitarist’ awards given by the Memphis Chapter of the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences. She was also chosen “Artistic Ambassador” for the United States Information Agency to Africa and is currently head of the University of Memphis guitar section.
After the opening track, Carlo Domeniconi’s possibly greatest hit for the classical guitar, “Koyunbaba”, one has the notion that Afshar seems born to perform music of this nature, so innate is her presentation of this masterwork (which comes complete with her own mini-cadenza in the finale).
Carrying on with music from the Middle East, Afshar plays “Kara Toprak (Black Earth)” by the Turkish songwriter Asik Veysel, followed by her own arrangements of five Persian ballads and finally “Gozaar” by Iranian composer Reza Vali. Some of these compositions require quarter tones and for the particular notes Afshar has had small ‘fretlets’ glued onto the fingerboard of her Thomas Humphrey guitar.
The remainder of the programme contains music from Italy, Spain and South America, hence we have “Misionera” by Bustamente, “Un Dia de Noviembre” by Brouwer, “Andaluza” by Granados and three of Castelnuovo-Tedesco’s “24 Caprichos de Goya” (Afshar has recorded the complete series on a separate CD).
During the entire programme Lily Afshar performs cleanly, precisely and authoritatively with a beautiful tone and technical virtuosity. This is playing of the highest order and her genuine respect for the music shines through every piece.
The sound and picture quality throughout is exceptional…this is, by all standards, a remarkable performance by a player whose technical assuredness, judiciously shrewd musicality and charismatic personality makes this disc an absolute must for all guitarists to have in their collection. The disc concludes with an interview with Afshar in which she talks about her life and career, influences and her guitar. The DVD also has an attractive photograph gallery beginning from when she was seven years old.
"...stunning virtuosity. Without any doubt, Afshar ranks in the top among today's classically trained guitarists...", Deseret Morning News, February 23, 2008. Click here to see the review.
"...a delicious blend of Eastern and Western flavors.", Salt Lake Tribune, February 23, 2008. Click here to see the review."...striking...further proof that there's more to the world of classical guitar writing than the usual Spanish suspects...", St. Louis Post-Dispatch, January 28, 2008. Click here to see the review.
"...an exotic mix...She plays music by composers most of us have never heard of and creates sounds that hearken back to Sheherezade and the Arabian Nights...", Minnesota Public Radio, January 2008. Click here to see the review and listen to the audio feature.
"...classical guitarist Lily Afshar strikes the best balance yet between heritage and innovation on this new album...", American Record Guide, September/October 2007. Click here to see the review.
"...draws together the seemingly disparate spheres of classical guitar and world music...An endlessly rewarding release from one of the 21st century guitar's most individual and creative figures...", Classical Guitar Magazine, February 2007. Click here to see the review.
"Lily Afshar is a Guitar Goddess...", One Way Magazine, August/September 2006. Click here to see the review.
"Exotic...superbly crafted repertoire." Classicalsource, 2006. Click here to see the review.
"Afshar’s playing is amazing:...", Peoria Journal Star, 2006.
"The first thing that struck me was the glorious, warm and deep sound that Lily Afshar can produce with her guitar...", UHF Magazine, 2006. Click here to see the review.
"Lily Afshar has brought us a multicolored recital, a richly inventive journey through diverse musical landscapes...", Fanfare Magazine, 2006. Click here to see the review.
"...a fascinating collection of classical guitar pieces drawing on a wide variety of world music traditions...", CD Hotlist, 2006. Click here to see the review
"Tehran-born Lily Afshar is a whoosh of fresh air in the sometimes fusty classical guitar world...", UTNE Reader 2006. Click here to see the review
"Lily Afshar's Guitar recital at the Wigmore Hall on 18 March...", Musical Opinion, 2005 2Click here to see the review
"Afshar's classical guitar casts a beautiful spell..." Cincinnati Enquirer, 2004 2Click here to see the review
"Afshar's performance is stunning; bringing the music to life with captivating emotional breadth." 2Guitar Review, 2003
"...Apollonian refinement..." The Guitar Foundation of America Soundboard, 2002
"...A guitarist of the highest order..." Classical Guitar, England, 2002
"...a refreshing recording...the music is evocative and the performances passionate...", Guitarra Magazine, 2002. Click here to see the review.
from The Patriot Ledger: August 9, 2002
by Peter Knapp
Also enterprising is the solo recital of contemporary guitar music performed by the Iranian-born guitarist Lily Afshar on an Archer Records CD called “Possession” for some reason.
July 25, 2002
Lily Afshar, guitar
from American Record Guide: July/Aug. 2002
Lily Afshar-a former writer for this magazine-plays beautifully on this vibrant and adventurous recording made up mostly of contemporary works. Her tone is sonorous, her technique solid, and each of her interpretations of these widely varying works is richly characterized.
The recording quality is superb. I have heard quite a few recordings recently with a disturbing hiss. The sound on this one is pristine, projecting all of the details of Afshar’s playing without distracting background noise.
I will not attempt to comment on all of these pieces, but I will discuss the less familiar ones. Four were written for Afshar: Salvador Broton’s Scherzo, Dusan Bogdanvic’s Omar’s Fancy, Barbara Kolb’s Broken Slurs, and Kamran Ince’s MKG Variations, Broton’s Scherzo is a dynamic opener for the program, full of fantasy, jagged lines, and ingenious guitar writing. Omar’s Fancy is typical of much of Bogdanvic’s music, with its ambient stasis and harmonies reminiscent of Eastern Europe. Also on the program is his more substantial Introduction, Fugue and Passacaglia for the Golden Flower, a work that explores the same exotic sound world at great length and with more technical extroversion.
Barbara Kolb’s Three Lullabies have always been among my favorite pieces for the guitar from the latter part of the last century (they were written for David Starobin in 1980.) Her music is sophisticated and enchanting and the humming in the third lullaby is always wonderfully haunting. The humming is usually performed by a male voice, but Afshar does it herself here, using an eerily distant flat tone. Kolb’s Broken Slurs, the piece dedicated to Afshar, follows the third Lullaby without pause, its two very brief parts seeming to function as a continuation of the earlier work. Kamran Ince’s MKG Variations, the final work, is dedicated to this guitarist, and derives much of its effect from stark contrast and atmospheric hovering, interrupted by angular outbursts, and sparse textures giving way to full-voiced harmonies.
The effect of the entire program is very satisfying. Afshar has clearly thought carefully about the order of the pieces to make the most effective sequence of moods and contrasts. This is a fine release from an accomplished performer.
..."utterly at one with the guitar..."
The Press, Christchurch, New Zealand, 2002
"Afshar is a player with astonishing breadth, and her skill makes "Possession" a worthy addition to any CD collection." The Hartford Courant, 2002
"Upon first hearing Possession, one is stricken by Afshar's absolutely flawless technique. Subsequent listenings reveal the depth of her passion as, like a fine actor, she infuses each performance with a pure emotional intensity that audience's can't help but feel." The Hull Times, 2002
"...her most impressive play yet...challenging joyride of a record..." Commercial Appeal, Memphis, 2002
"...a masterful player, with the full range of guitar's musical capability at her fingertips..." Illinois Times, 2002
"...Afshar's playing was exceptional..." Journal Star, Peoria, Ill, 2002
"...brilliant flow, rhythm, and style... excellent guitarist..." American Record Guide, 1999
"...wide range of effects and nuance, expertly exploring Domeniconi's evocative catalog of tonal color, harmonic texture and modal melody...technical brilliance... exquisitely shaped phrases..." Winston-Salem Journal, 1999
"...a sensitive and passionate performance..." Winston-Salem Journal, 1999
"...a stunning performance...." Classical Guitar, England, 1997
"...wonderfully inventive, witty and sophisticated...splendid command of a broad palette of tone colors, a lovely sense of line, a good ear for balance, and in her remarks, a scholarly bent that informed the entire program." Washington Post, 1997
"...Spell-binding..." The Commercial Appeal, 1996
"...Exotic..." The Guitar Foundation of America Soundboard, 1996
"...The session ended with a superb lecture-recital by Lily Afshar, whose research on Tedesco's Caprichos de Goya has made her a world authority on this neglected work. Dr. Afshar is a prime example of the performing academic- and elite breed of guitarist whose playing is every bit as impressive as her qualifications." Paul Fowles, Classical Guitar, England, 1995
"...this performance is an unequivocal success...", Jim Tosone, Guitar Review, 1994. Click here to see the review.
"...Afshar dazzles...brought tremendous facility, tone, color, dynamics and sense of phrasing to some of the most intellectually demanding works in the guitar repertoire...the playing was at once enchanting and exciting." The Rosette Orange County Guitar Circle, 1994
"...delightful...solid and sensitive, adventurous and effective (programming),...her didactic presentation was a model of the genre". The Guitar Foundation of America Soundboard, 1993
"...stellar performance...extraordinary technical competence...boundless musicality...Dr. Afshar inhabited the piece (Invocation & Dance), showing us a full-dimensional competence that eludes but a vey few guitarists in the world today...freshness and mature passion...She is a jewel..." Idaho Classical Guitar Society, 1991
"...bright future...her playing showed remarkable consistency in terms of musicality, finesse and thoughtfulness, a combination that escapes many performers except on the best nights...Impeccable execution...auspicious debut." The Washington Post, 1989
"...vast technique...revealed the beauty and durability of her craftsmanship." The Commercial Appeal, 1989
"brilliant technique...brilliant interpretation...distinguished security, aplomb and serenity...masterly execution..." La Republica....Costa Rica, 1988
"...bold and brilliant...exhibited a keen sense of style in Sor's Introduction and Variations on a Theme of the "Magic Flute" by Mozart...the audience hung on every note...made full use of the expressive and coloristic capabilities of her instrument..." The Alabama Journal, 1988
"...Exquisite classical guitar concert...great facility...apparent ease...held her audience in rapt attention throughout...few concerts have the poise, discipline, and artistry displayed in this one." The Montgomery Advertiser, 1988
"...established herself as a master guitarist...sensitive musician...brilliant and superlative artistry...apparent ease...unquestionable command of intricate and difficult passages...passionate intensity...the audience sat spellbound...a wizard of guitar technique..." The Guitar Foundation of America Soundboard, 1986
"... (It is) my prediction that she will be a beautiful celebrity." Andres Segovia, 1986