Classical guitarist Lily Afshar astonishes audiences with intense performance

When Lily Afshar, the world-renowned Iranian-American classical guitarist, took the stage last Friday at Brooks-Rogers Recital Hall, she filled the room with her smile and passion. She did not resemble the stereotypical staid classical guitarist as she walked out wearing a colorful flowing dress with frills and big red bow in her hair. Her bright red lipstick accentuated her wide smile as she said, “I think we need a bigger hall.”

Afshar is often praised for her hard work in the expansion of the music repertoire for the classical guitar, and this was evident in her performance. She enthusiastically told the history of each piece before playing. Two of the pieces were written especially for her, and two more, originally written for piano and cello, respectively, she herself transposed into guitar pieces.

Afshar actually had to alter her instrument in order to play one piece, “Gozaar (Calligraphy No. 5).” Written for Afshar, it is based on the Persian scale system, which has quarter tones. In order to achieve quarter tones, Lily added frets to the neck of her guitar. It is this kind of dedication to challenging traditional classical guitar music that wins her praise and admiration.

On Friday, Afshar sported a thick black armband covering her right forearm to protect her arm from a permanent indent of the side of the guitar where she rests it.

And she needs it, because she plays every song with intense emotion. She described one piece, “MKG Variations,” as going from “angry to delicate, very raw and unforgiving.” As she played she physically embodies those emotions, swaying with her guitar and bobbing her head up and down.

Classical guitar is different from acoustic guitar. There are far fewer chords; instead there is more plucking and complicated rhythms. At Brooks-Rogers, Afshar played complicated rhythms with speed, subtly and a unique style. She often played strings high on the neck of the guitar instead of at the body, creating very high notes. She also bent many notes. Most amazing was the way Afshar used her fingers: at times I couldn’t believe how fast and nimbly they were moving.

The highlight of the evening was the world premiere of the piece “Unexpected Passage: Dances and Laments for Solo Guitar,” composed by the College’s own David Kechley, chair of the music department. Kechley wrote the song in memory of Minnesota guitarist John Chatterton. He was commissioned in the mid-nineties to write a piece for Chatterton and his wife, but found out soon after that Chatterton had suddenly died at the age of 29. Kechley said that Chatterton had really impressed him.

“I wrote it based on my impression from what I knew of him [and] his life,” Kechly said. Kechley also said that although his piece had been collecting dust for the past couple years, it was “well worth the wait to premier it,” and that he felt it was meant to be premiered by Lily Afshar. Indeed, only she could depict the rage and energy in the piece, which was met with great acclaim from the audience. In fact, people kept entering the auditorium throughout the performance. At the end, Afshar and Kechley shook hands and the room filled with applause yet again.

Both Afshar and Kechley have received numerous awards in their field. Most recently, Kechley was awarded the 2006-07 ASCAPHUS Award based on the unique prestige value of his compositions. Afshar has been named Best Female Classical Guitarist in Los Angeles, as well as “Premier Guitarist” by the Memphis Chapter of the National Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences. She was also the first woman in the world to gain a doctorate of music in guitar performance. She has recently released her fourth recording, Hemispheres, in which she introduced her use of quarter tones. On Feb. 9, she will perform Kechley’s piece at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington.