Interview: Classical Champion Mark Topchii

At the finals of the International Maurizio Biasini Guitar Competition—held January 14-17, 2016, at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music’s Caroline H. Hume Concert Hall—reverent silence turned into laughter when the orchestra conductor put down her baton and explained she had the wrong score.
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At the finals of the International Maurizio Biasini Guitar Competition—held January 14-17, 2016, at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music’s Caroline H. Hume Concert Hall—reverent silence turned into laughter when the orchestra conductor put down her baton and explained she had the wrong score. She returned a few minutes later with the correct—and much thicker—score in hand, and guitarist Marko Topchii began the rasqueado strumming that opens composer Joaquín Rodrigo’s Concierto de Aranjuez (1939).

After a few measures, the woodwinds and the rest of the orchestra joined in, and, by the end of the third and final movement, the sounds emanating from Topchii’s guitar had beautifully evoked Rodrigo’s hopes and dreams for a postcivil- war Spain. The guitarist displayed similar virtuosity with Mussorgsky’s “The Hut on Fowl’s Legs (Baba Yagá)” from Pictures at an Exhibition and the world premiere of Sérgio Assad’s solo-guitar piece, “Imbricatta (in ten asymmetrical layers).”

Topchii’s stunning performances earned him the Biasini’s top honor, as well as a $12,000 prize, and invitations to perform in Switzerland, Italy, and France. The 25-year-old native of Kiev began playing guitar at age four under the tutelage of the Ukrainian teacher, Volodymyr Homenyuk, and, to date, has won more than 50 awards with 23 first-place prizes. Topchii is currently pursuing a doctorate degree at the Tchaikovsky National Academy of Music—all while juggling a packed schedule of concerts and master classes.

What guitar do you currently play?

I play a brand new guitar from Hongsik Uhm, a wonderful South Korean luthier that I met more than a year ago. Last August, he reached out to me with an offer of a new guitar, and I was quite careful about the idea, as morally I can only accept such a gift if the instrument suits me better than my current one. A couple of months later, I met Uhm while I was competing in the Daejeon Guitar Competition, and I got to choose the instrument that fit me the best. I returned home with it, and I decided the sound was already developed enough to express many ideas that have been waiting to come out. Along with a spruce top, it has Brazilian rosewood back and sides, and an ebony fretboard, and I currently use D’Addario EJ46FF Pro-Arté Carbon Dynacore strings. I’ve also played guitars by Mykola Roodenko, Karl-Heinz Roemmich, and Yuichi Imai.

“Imbricatta (in 10 asymmetrical layers)” had never been publicly performed or recorded. Aside from having the sheet music, how did you prepare your interpretation of the piece?

My process always starts with searching for fingerings based on the phrases and the tone concept that may be designed by the composer. I don’t write down the fingerings, because it is too much work. I just memorize them, and the process may be quite slow at the beginning. “Imbricatta” is a highly demanding piece, and I am very grateful to the Biasini Competition for having commissioned it, and making an important contribution to the classical-guitar repertoire. I have already included “Imbricatta” in my future programs.

How does your approach differ for playing with an orchestra?

The musical canvas of the soloist and the orchestra must be synchronized, and this requires the soloist to take other instrumental parts into consideration. Performing with an orchestra may also stimulate a rubato where you slow the tempo and then have to give it back—maybe even before the end of the current beat—because being synced should still be the priority.

You have two CDs coming out this year. What pieces will they include?

I recorded a CD for Fleur de Son Classics with beautiful pieces by Leo Brouwer, Fernando Sor, Carlos Moscardini, Federico Moreno Torroba, Marco de Biasi, and Rodrigo. I am also recording an album for Contrastes Records that will include compositions by Antón García Abril, Regino Sáinz de la Maza, Agustín Barrios, Mauro Giuliani, and Torroba.

Which classical guitarists have influenced your playing?

I remember Roland Dyens’ “Libra Sonatine” being my favorite when I was 16 years old. I play it at concerts from time to time. I have been playing some movements from Sergio Assad’s “Aquarelle” for a couple of years in expectation of eventually performing it. Most of my repertoire is based on sympathy, interest, or love. Francisco Tárrega’s “Carnival of Venice” and some of the studies by Heitor Villa-Lobos were my main compositions since I was about 15 years old, and they greatly triggered the development of my performance abilities. Along with that, having classical piano as a hobby greatly influenced my musical perception, as my real interest started with Mephisto-Waltzes by Franz Liszt, Etudes by Frédéric Chopin, Sergei Rachmaninov, Franz Liszt, and Alexander Scriabin.

What do you consider the most important lesson that you teach your master-class students?

Approach the question from as many perspectives as possible. This provides a deeper understanding of most of what occurs in life. And this can be applied to polyphony when there are passages where we can reveal the motives, micro phrases, and rhythms that are designed throughout the music, and intertwine them with a certain understanding.

Do you have any advice for the beginning classical guitarist?

Be open-minded and stay that way.

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