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ON THE SCENE: Chance encounters bring flamenco star to Keene

Grisha Goryachev (Provided photo — Naj Wikoff)

Chance encounters can make a profound difference in someone’s life. For Russian-born guitarist Grisha Goryachev, it was hearing flamenco music for the first time. With the opening of Russia to new experiences from the west under glasnost, Mikhail Gorbachev’s policy of openness following the Chernobyl disaster, the Spanish guitarist Paco De Luca was invited to give a groundbreaking performance in the Soviet Union in 1986.

Up until then, most Soviet citizens had never heard flamenco. Goryachev said that De Luca’s performance blew his mind. Well it should, as De Luca was not only a virtuoso in classical flamenco but was one of several pushing “new flamenco” and branching into jazz. Further, De Luca was a master of picados, a fast and fluent style of picking a guitar. For Goryachev, it was like being a polar bear dropped into a jungle, a whole new experience.

Before De Luca’s concert, Goryachev, then 9, had only heard and been taught classical guitar. Flamenco was something else. He begged his father to help him learn. His father, a music teacher didn’t know flamenco either, but he was able to get bootleg copies of recordings and acquire a manual on how to play flamenco. Within a few years, Goryachev’s rare ability to play flamenco got noticed, and, with it, increased opportunities to perform.

During Boris Yeltsin’s presidency in the 1990s, the Russian economy was in free fall, with many people not getting a paycheck for many months at a time. By then, Goryachev was becoming an international sensation and the only one in the family earning any money. He also desired to study classical guitar at an American musical conservatory, which was offered to him by the New England Conservatory.

Goryachev arrived in the United States in December 1995. Once here, he set to work studying, teaching and performing well enough to earn him a green card within two years. In 1999, his parents won a green card lottery allowing them to join him in Boston, and soon after that, he became a U.S. citizen.

Matt Dunne (Provided photo — Naj Wikoff)

Goryachev is known for his skills as a flamenco guitarist, one fluent in classical and contemporary techniques. He is equally fluent in classical guitar, a grounding begun with his father and continued with training in the U.S.

“I think the tension between classical and contemporary flamenco began with Andre Sergovia, who was outspoken and not supportive of the new flamenco,” said Goryachev. “He thought it was too theatrical, too showy, too much about dazzling technique. Some followed him and believed what he said. It became almost a war between classical and contemporary guitarists. I’m glad to say it’s no longer an issue. I think bringing the two together enriches each style.”

In a sense, it was a chance encounter that brought Goryachev to Keene to perform at the Keene Valley Congregational Church on Saturday, Sept. 19. Matt Dunne — a professional guitarist, 27-year professor of music at the University of Texas at San Antonio and now a full-time resident of Keene — first heard Goryachev about 10 years ago. Dunne was then leading one of the biggest guitar festivals globally, and Goryachev was on the roster.

“It was amazing to hear him play,” said Dunne. “He’s a unique individual in the guitar world because he’s so great at flamenco, and he plays classical guitar extremely well, too. Goryachev brings the two together, not in an artificial way. He doesn’t mix classical and jazz guitar, but there are things about how he plays flamenco guitar that only a classical guitarist can do. Certain nuances, his treatment of time, and his treatment of sound; he has an unbelievable sound.”

Dunne immediately recruited Goryachev to teach his students. Now, about 10 years later, living in Keene and a board member of East Branch Friends of the Arts, he reached out last winter to Goryachev, who lives five hours away in Boston.

For many, including Goryachev, it was their first live performance this year.

“Not performing before a live audience has been tough,” said Goryachev. “I have been teaching a lot. I have had some online concerts, but it is not the same. It’s nowhere near; there is no feedback. Tonight, when I played, I was able to feed off the audience’s applause and response. Just seeing faces in the room gives me back the energy I use to play better.”

What was scheduled to be a one-hour performance at the church Saturday evening stretched for an hour and a half as it seemed neither the audience nor Goryachev could get enough. What was the audience’s reaction? Two standing ovations.

“That was the best performance I’ve ever heard in this room,” said Amy Nelson, music teacher at Boquet Valley Central School who performs around the region and beyond. “That was amazing. I was entranced.”

“I think he is incredibly musical,” said Pete Nelson. “His technique is impressive, and flamenco is such a dramatic art form, but his musicality came through all the time. He just feels everything about it and expresses it so clearly to the audience. It’s a thrill.”

The chance encounter for Keene Central School was Goryachev’s performing and talking with the students the day before.

“The kids thought Goryachev was amazing, said Keene Central School music teacher Lynn DeWalt. “They were mesmerized by his fingers because he was just flying; his right hand especially. He was very personable as well. He was good with the kids and able to answer their questions on their level.”

DeWalt said the kids learned about the cultural aspect of Spanish music. What stood out for DeWalt was learning that in flamenco the musician follows the dancer, not the other way around. He said that posed a problem for Goryachev, as the dancers could not match his tempo. As a consequence, he said Goryachev rarely plays with dancers.

“Goryachev also told us that he doesn’t read music at all,” said DeWalt. “It’s all orally taught. He picks it up by ear, watches videos and learns it that way. He said the first time he learned a piece, it took him six months. Now he can learn a very complicated piece in a day.”

“No question that meeting a musician like Goryachev can be life-changing for a student,” said DeWalt. He noted that Keene Central has two fourth graders who have recently taken up the guitar. They were mesmerized by Goryachev. As DeWalt said, “Who knows what this will do for them?”

What we do know is that Goryachev wants to return.

(Naj Wikoff lives in Keene Valley. He has been covering events for the News for more than 15 years.)