Vantage Music | Hong Kong | October 2022
On the eve of Halloween 2022, the rising guitar star Plínio Fernandes gave his debut in Hong Kong, captivating the hall with his mastery of the string instrument. Vantage was fortunate to catch the Brazilian classical guitarist after his concert, where he shared with us his musical upbringing, both as a solo guitarist and as part of a duo with cellist Sheku Kanneh–Mason.
A Family of Musicians
Even before Plínio was born, the guitar had been a fixture of the Fernandes household. “My father used to be an amateur guitarist, so the guitar was always on the sofa standing.” Plínio tinkered around with the instrument when he was growing up, but it wasn’t until when he was seven years old that his hands had developed enough to pick up the guitar properly.
Even though Plínio’s father could play the guitar, he didn’t actively take part in Plínio’s lessons. “In the very beginning, my father would bring me to the local guitar teacher and would make sure I practised a certain number of hours every day for a bit, but practising quickly became something very organic to me, so he would leave me to myself, listening occasionally but never commenting on my playing.”
Few children of Plínio’s age had the self-discipline to practise every day, and Plínio attributed this to the motivations he had received early on in his youth. “The first year when I started, my father took me to a national guitar competition, where I entered and won the category for children aged up to 13.” The prize notwithstanding, it was the experience that hooked Plínio. “People applauded me. My family was happy to see me play. The whole thing was music, plus what music could create. I would be there seeing other people playing the guitar, and this whole social side of making music fascinated me. As a child, I wanted to belong to something, and being with all these people created a sense of community, something I enjoyed quite a lot. From then on, it became tradition for me to enter a competition every year. I would just practise for the whole year a certain repertoire, a couple of four or five different small short pieces, and then at the end of the year I would have a goal.”
Another source of motivation came in the form of recordings. “I still remember discovering the recordings of Julian Bream. There are other phenomenal guitarists who would go on to influence me, like David Russell or Fábio Zanon, but I was particularly impressed by Bream’s mastery across the whole range of repertoire, from lute music of the Renaissance to modern Spanish pieces, and even transcription of Liszt’s piano works for solo guitar. His range of colours, and especially his phrasing, just blew me away. After listening to him, I felt that there’s nothing else that I want to do in my life but to play the guitar.”
Studying in London
In 2011, Plínio successfully auditioned for the International Campos do Jordão Winter Festival. “It was the biggest Latin American festival, and they would invite groups from major institutions all over the world. There would be a string quartet from Juilliard or a brass group from the Royal Academy of Music, and to think that I got a full scholarship to play in the same stage as them as a guitarist!” The high standards of the festival opened Plínio’s mind and ears to much broader spaces, and convinced Plínio to pursue his undergraduate and master’s studies at the Royal Academy of Music in 2014.
The guitar department at the Royal Academy of Music was like a mecca to Plínio. “My greatest idols, Fábio Zanon, David Russell and Julian Bream, all had taught at the Academy. Even though David and Julian had already retired when I arrived, I learned a lot from the people who studied and listened from them. Just the fact that I was breathing the same air as them made me excited.”
Of course, there is more to the Academy than the atmosphere. “The guitar course there is really phenomenal. It was one of the best guitar courses in the world by far, with its own legacy, standards and traditions, and we have to learn a lot of things. Michael Lewin was my main teacher during my stay at the Academy, and I had to do all kinds of technical exams and recitals, both solo and chamber.”
Among all the wisdom that Lewin imparted to the student, it was a piece of career advice that impacted Plínio the most. “The Academy was most formative to my guitar techniques, but the best advice I have gotten from them is that I have to be original. The audience can tell if you’re just playing something for the sake of playing, or if you are emotionally involved with the piece, so they told me to learn my strength and play music that I really love, that speaks to me, and be imaginative and creative.”
It is hard to be creative without some external stimuli, but fortunately the Academy provided ample inspirations for the budding guitarist. “When I was there, the guitar department was very small, and I made sure that I would be in touch with instrumentalists from outside the town so that I could became friends with the singers, pianists, violinists, cellists and so on, and I would listen to their repertoire a lot. I actually distanced myself in a way from the guitar repertoire because I wanted to broaden my musical ideas.”
A Family of 7 Musicians
One fruitful product that came out of Plínio’s venture was his collaboration with the cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason. “Sheku was five years younger than me, but he has already conquered the world. How about this?”
The Kanneh-Masons had been under the spotlight since 2015, when the family of seven appeared on the semi-finals of Britain’s Got Talent with a medley of Tchaikovsky, Prokofiev and Clean Bandit. Since then, all of the Kanneh-Masons had been pursuing musical careers, with six of them having studied at the Royal Academy of Music.
Sheku was not the first Kanneh-Mason that Plínio had known. “The way I met Sheku and his family was because, when I came to London, Isata Kanneh-Mason, the eldest sister, who was a phenomenal pianist, she was also my year. We joined the Academy at the same time for undergrad. Then, two years later, Braimah, who was a violinist, came. Then the next year Sheku joined. So, by the time Sheku joined, I was already quite close friends with the siblings. We bonded for many different reasons, not only playing music but also playing football together. I even live together with Sheku now. We are best friends.”
In 2020, Plínio and Sheku recorded an arrangement of “Scarborough Fair”, which went viral on streaming platforms. “‘Scarborough Fair’ is my ticket to fame. We even played live for 2 million people on the national TV in France.” The arrangement put Plínio on the public’s radar, and Plínio capitalised on this chance to grow his online presence. “It was during the pandemic, and I became much more active on social media, posting videos and being there, because that was the only way to communicate with any audience. I was regularly appearing on TV and on BBC, and then one day Graham Parker, the president of Decca US, decided to sign me on his label.” This made Plínio one of the few living classical guitarists to be signed to a major recording label, no small feat in the classical music field but especially in the classical guitar scene.
Plínio and Sheku’s duo of guitar and cello was a relatively uncommon combination of instruments, and Plínio told us about the challenge he faces when performing with this instrumentation.
“The guitar is a fickle instrument. You cannot play very loud. If you bend it, you will miss all the subtlety and the beautiful colours that are gradually there. Sheku is normally a very performative cellist, so, when paired with a softer instrument like the guitar, he had to play soft. This gave him a chance to explore different colours, to show a character not usually exhibited on the cello. We could have just placed the guitar on the microphone and then pitted it against the cello, but artistically it is very important to find a balance that stays, so that we can try to bring the audience in as well.”
While the guitar may be lacking in power, Plínio didn’t think that this was a vice. “The guitar is an instrument that invites people in. It is very intimate. In fact, the best place to hear the guitar would be in a small venue, as it is not loud unless you amplify. As a guitarist, I just try to take the strong sides of the instrument, which is the intimacy and the range of colours, and show and highlight them, as opposed to fretting about the projection or the lack or repertoire in certain periods.”
Sounds of Old and New
The guitar as a classical instrument hadn’t gained much traction until the late 19th century, when Antonio de Torres Jurado invented a fan-braced pattern for the instrument, which greatly improved its volume and tone, cementing the guitar into the iconic form that we all recognise nowadays. A side result of this development is a curious gap in the classical guitar repertoire that every guitarist has to grapple with when planning a recital programme.
Plínio’s Hong Kong debut recital in 2022, “Sounds of Old and New”, tackled this head-on, embracing the guitar’s heritage by showcasing both the classical beauty of the Renaissance era and the dazzling world of modern Latin American sensations. “We don’t have Tchaikovsky, Beethoven, Mozart or indeed any major composers who wrote for the guitar until the 20th century, but we have a huge amount of Renaissance music for guitar-like instruments like the lute, the theorbo or the vihuela. John Dowland alone wrote over 90 pieces for the lute.”
Plínio had a soft spot for Dowland’s music. “I am a big fan of early music, and Dowland in particular is quite dear to my heart. Dowland lived at the same time as Shakespeare, so he approached his instruments in a very rhetoric way, which granted his pieces a distinctive lyricalness. I was so in love with Dowland that I even did my end-of-year exams in the Academy with a set of Dowland’s pieces, because I’d love to explore that repertoire, especially as he was living in England and having such connections to the place I am living in.”
Fast forward to the 20th century, where the invention of the modern guitar allowed contemporary composers to approach the stringed instrument in a more virtuosic way. “Thanks to the efforts of Andres Segovia, who popularised the classical guitar and commissioned a lot of solo works for the instrument, we have a plethora of pieces by major composers in the 20th century, with most of them becoming the backbone for most guitarists’ repertoire nowadays. Now, we have Britten, Walton, Falla, and we also have Villa-Lobos, whose set of 12 etudes can stand its ground against the likes of Paganini.”
For many a casual listener, classical music was often thought of as an immutable tradition, but it is still very much evolving in the realm of classical guitar. “I’ve been very fortunate to work with some of the greatest living guitarist composers. The first is Sergio Assad, from Duo Assads, who arranged a lot of Brazilian folk songs for my album Saudade and even composed a charming little piece, “Snowflakes”, for my upcoming album. Recently, Sheku and I also commissioned a sonata for guitar and cello from Leo Brouwer that we will be premiering in 2023.” Much as Segovia had been expanding the classical guitar repertoire, Plínio was seeking to do so for the guitarist in a chamber setting. “We are trying to fill in the gaps of the repertoire for chamber music, to actually create a repertoire for cello and guitar that’s original but not just arrangements of Spanish music, because anyone can transcribe, but what of original music?”
The technology of livestreaming has been around for a few years, but musicians are commonly averse to its use, with most preferring the intimacy of live performances. As a recipient of the boons of the internet, Plínio was more partial to performing online. “During the lockdown, I spent the pandemic with Sheku and his family in Nottingham, and we were doing two livestreams a week every week. That pushed us to perform very regularly, which was very good.”
Plínio thought that the regular livestreams played no small part in his rapidly rising popularity. “Social media is a really powerful tool. Many audience members only get to know of me through the algorithm of social media, which shows me to them, even though they don’t normally appreciate classical music or classical guitar. But once it’s shown to them, they’ll say, ‘Oh, that’s wonderful’, then they went to see me in my concerts. It inspires me to know that I have introduced them to the beautiful world of music and guitar, and it challenges me to be a bit more creative, to communicate with them.
“Playing online is never the same as playing live. If I had a choice, I would rather play to a single person in the room than to 100 people on screen. But sometimes circumstances dictate that you can’t have live performances, and on these moments livestreaming shows its value, because people needed music anyhow, and that was the only way to reach them.”
Ultimately, Plínio agreed that live music is here to stay. “Livestreams may have helped people to consume music in difficult times, but it also reminded us how much we needed live music, how much we missed. At the end of the pandemic, I was so desperate for real-life interaction that if someone were to scream on the street, I will cry and thank them for the shout. We need, you know, music happening live.”
Plínio Fernandes @ Concert Hall, Hong Kong City Hall | Photos credit: Kenny Cheung / Premiere Performances of Hong Kong
Ups and Downs
Plínio’s recital the previous night had been a resounding success but, as is the case with most concert musicians, he had also had his shares of ups and downs. “Not every night can be your perfect night.”
“When I was 14, I was playing in a concert and had a memory lapse. I tried and I stopped, so I started filing my nails as an excuse, trying to wing it, to buy some time.” Classical guitarists need to have well-manicured nails, so it is not uncommon for a guitarist to file their nails in concert. “I restarted the piece after I finished filing, but unfortunately I still couldn’t remember what notes were in that next passage, so I just sat there in silence. It was so embarrassing.”
As the young Plínio would later find out, memory lapses in concertising are like turbulence in flying – they are both something that no one wants yet have to account for in their practice. “It was a very new piece that I just tried to play for other people. Back then, I didn’t know that one shouldn’t play something that they are not 120% well prepared to do. I could play it all during rehearsals, so I went ahead and put it on the concert, but then nervousness kicked in during the performance and I was toast.
“Some said that having a perfect concert is up to luck, but I believe that the harder you work and focus on, the luckier you will be at having a perfect concert. Experience plays a role as well; now that I have played many concerts, it will be much different than from when I was 14. But no matter how much you have prepared, there are inevitably memory lapses or slip-ups that will occur, and it is part of the game for musicians to embrace it, and then swim out of it.”
Slip-ups or not, one thing has accompanied Plínio through all his highs and lows. “Through my highest and lowest moments as a guitarist and as a human being, my guitar has always been there for me. To me, the guitar signifies love and trust, and I am really grateful for its companionship.”
Interviewed by Vantage Music and written by Chester Leung.