Persian guitarist makes Utah debut
February 19, 2008
Classical guitarist Lily Afshar plans to perform in Istanbul in May, and in Tijuana in November, but first, she will make her Utah debut at the University of Utah Thursday, Feb. 21, plucking a slate of folk songs from Spain and Paraguay and Turkey and, as is her custom, some Persian music as an encore.
Though she might be unfamiliar with Utah, the internationally-renowned artist will recognize the landscape. Afshar was born and raised in Tehran, Iran’s largest city and capital, a desert metropolis nestled beside the towering Alborz mountains, a range not unlike the Wasatch in size and scope.
She remembers falling in love with classical guitar at age 10 at her cousin’s house in Tehran. Her father bought her a classical guitar the next day.
"In Iran, it’s rare for a parent to encourage their daughter to study music," she says. "My father was different. He had a much broader understanding."
From private lessons to studying at the Tehran Conservatory of Music, Afshar went, as she says, "straight to the top." After leaving Iran in 1977, she discovered that in the United States, it was possible to pursue guitar at the undergraduate and graduate levels. She earned degrees at the Boston Conservatory and then at the New England Conservatory of Music, and in 1989, became the first woman awarded a doctorate of music in guitar performance at Florida State University.
From there, Afshar won numerous awards and recognitions, including the designation of 1995’s artistic ambassador to Africa, which included a month-long stay in West Africa, where she traveled to Chad, Cameroon and Burkina Faso to perform.
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Currently, Afshar is a music professor and head of guitar studies at the University of Memphis, departing periodically to play for her global audience in countries like Great Britain, New Zealand, France and Italy.
"I’m the only woman from Iran who is famous for guitar and it’s because in order to reach international status, you have to sacrifice a lot," she explains. "First you have to get out of that country and then you have to take so many steps — it’s a very competitive world and it’s lonely. Violinists and pianists can play with orchestras; I practice six, seven hours a day alone and perform by myself But for me, I don’t mind. This is what I always wanted to do."
Afshar says in music her objective is always to "break the mold." In 1994, she recorded Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco’s "24 Caprichos de Goya," combining two of her interests, music and art. The recording followed her doctoral dissertation on the composition which is inspired by a series of etchings by Spanish painter Francisco Goya, composed with Afshar’s mentor, the late Andres Segovia, often lauded at the world’s greatest classical guitarist, in mind. It was her first album.
Afshar’s sophomore recording, 1999’s "A Jug of Wine and Thou," includes her versions of rare, never-before-recorded Persian Ballads and foreshadows her most recent album, 2006’s "Hemispheres." Featuring songs that breach the western and Persian divide further, "Hemispheres" incorporates the centuries-old Persian tradition of quarter tones, a sound difficult to translate on typical guitars designed for the 12-tone scale. To play the songs, Afshar had fretlets installed on her guitar, smaller versions of the metal strips on the fingerboard that divide the instrument’s neck into segments. She also played the sitar. No. 7 on Billboard’s Top Classical Albums chart in 2006, the album was featured on National Public Radio’s "All Things Considered" program.
Reviewers often remark on Afshar’s technique, emotional intensity and eclectic taste. Last year, Classical Guitar Magazine said of "Hemispheres," "(Afshar) 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."
While she is inspired by her eastern heritage, Afshar says she will continue to remain in Tennessee, where she enjoys Memphis’ soul. She likes the blues and enjoys the city’s open-mindedness. In an interview with Modern Guitars magazine, Afshar described collaboration with a ballet troupe choreographer, explaining that in Memphis, "there are so many things going on. Anything can happen here."
In the same article, she insists, "Guitarists should be more broad-minded I do new things, things that haven’t been done before. I’m not scared."
Asked to reflect on her career and her passion for classical guitar, Afshar describes the connection between herself and her instrument lyrically.
"I just love the sound of it; it’s very intimate," she says. "There is no bow. You pluck the strings with your nails, so you have contact with the strings. It’s a very natural and independent instrument, but it makes a sound that brings people together."
See Lily Afshar
*Who: Lily Afshar, classical guitarist
*What: The University of Utah School of Music’s Virtuoso Series
*When: Thursday, Feb. 21 at 7:30 p.m.
*Where: At Libby Gardner Hall, located at 1375 E. Presidents Circle, University of Utah campus. Free shuttle parking is available from Rice-Eccles Stadium.
*Tickets: Admission is $25 for general audience and $10 for students. For tickets, visit http://www.kingtix.com or call 581-7100.