Valerie Hartzell: Out of darkness, into light

Classical guitarist Valerie Hartzell’s new album, “Ex Tenebris Lux,” is a musical journey of hope.

Classical Guitarist, Valerie Hartzell (photo by Robert Nejako)

HOUSTON, TX – October 6, 2011 – Being a musician, I often have the honor of meeting and befriending great artists from many different creative circles. A few years back, I met internationally respected and award winning classical guitarist, Valerie Hartzell. Founder and director of The Greater Houston Guitar Guild, Ms. Hartzell organizes concerts, student competitions, master classes by elite guitarists and teachers, and raises funds for educational scholarships and other community enriching non-profits. She also coordinates and directs The Classical Minds Guitar Festival & Competition, which is part of the Texas Music Festival held annually at The Moores School of Music, at The University of Houston.

Upon seeing Hartzell perform for the first time, what initially struck me was her quintessentially Grecian appearance.  She has long golden hair, a strong chin, wistful ocean-colored eyes, and a soft ivory complexion. On stage, she has a regal and romantic persona. One can’t but help imagine that if she were to perform amidst a dewy forest glade, she would look positively nymph-like against such a backdrop.

Once off the stage, however, Hartzell sheds her serene, mystic persona, and becomes a bubbly, outgoing, winsome socialite who never ceases to smile or to entertain. Together with her husband, Robb Nejako, Hartzell thrives on organizing salon concerts in her Katy, Texas home. Showcasing emerging and high-profile performers from around the world, the concerts are usually catered with Nejako’s much-craved homemade pizzas, while Hartzell and friends supply hors d’oeuvres, wine, and desserts.

Making reservations for Hartzell’s whimsical living-room events is a wise course of action, because by the time the musicians began to play, it’s usually standing room only. Her audience is always quite diverse, being made up of everyone from young guitar students, seasoned performers, and musical connoisseurs, to visual artists, philanthropists, doctors, and cowboys. A full schedule of Greater Houston Guitar Guild events, including salon concerts, can be found on Hartzell’s website.

After several years of award winning performances and international tours, Hartzell released her 2011 album, “Ex Tenebris Lux,” which is a collection of evocative, emotive, and dreamlike pieces, that seem to magically capture snapshots of Hartzell’s own life and personality. Much to my delight, Hartzell requested that I design the artwork for the album. While I have designed booklets and posters for a number of musical projects, visually capturing the stories told by wordless songs was a bracing challenge. In the end, I resolved to allow Hartzell herself to be my artistic inspiration.

The following is a transcript of the interview I had with Hartzell regarding the production of “Ex Tenebris Lux,” her upcoming world tour, and plans for the future.

GRASSMAN: Your album is titled “Ex Tenebris Lux.” What does that mean?

HARTZELL: “Ex Tenebris Lux” means, “out of darkness comes light,” and it’s a Latin proverb. I named the album in homage to the title piece of the CD, “Ex Tenebris,” which was written for me by my good friend Olga Amelkina-Vera. The album artwork is also based on the concept of lightness coming from darkness.

GRASSMAN: In fact, you have two pieces on the album composed by friends of yours. In addition to “Ex Tenebris,” there’s “Drift,” which was written by Andy Mitchell. What’s the history there?

HARTZELL: Andy Mitchell and I met at a summer festival in Connecticut when we were sophomores in high-school. So, a long while ago! We became fast friends and ended up both attending the Peabody Conservatory at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland. After I left college, I didn’t become proficient with the internet until I moved here to Houston. That’s when I was able to reconnect with past friends, like Andy.

When Andy and I got back in touch he sent me his piece “Drift,” which he had not recorded yet. I immediately fell in love with it and asked him if I could be the first to record his lovely work.  He agreed and I placed his lyrical piece between two large 20th century pieces in the new album’s track listing.

GRASSMAN: How wonderful! And the track listing does flow very nicely. There’s so much variety in the pieces you chose, yet a really strong common thread, which I’d almost describe as impressionistic.

You recorded “Ex Tenebris Lux” at Houston’s NPR studios, KUHF. The station has often featured you in live interviews and concerts on their performing arts show, The Front Row. What made you decide to capture “Ex Tenebris Lux” at their studios?

HARTZELL: I have a long standing relationship both with Bob Stevenson, the producer of The Front Row, and Todd Hulslander, who is the main recording engineer for all KUHF’s live shows. The Front Row often features artists I bring in to Houston to showcase at The Classical Minds Guitar Institute & Competition and at The Greater Houston Guitar Guild salon concerts.

Also, Jennifer, you gave me the idea of recording there when you told me that they sometimes offer studio time to select artists. I thought it was a wonderful idea, so I asked Todd if he would be willing to work with me. Luckily, he agreed and has done a brilliant job on the recording, editing, and mastering.

GRASSMAN: What was it like being able to record with an old school friend?

HARTZELL: Todd has always been a gentle giant. He is sweet, patient, well versed as a performing musician, and of course, a fantastic engineer. To become a recording engineer through The Peabody Conservatory, you have to be very proficient in your performance field. Todd auditioned and played trombone with the Peabody Symphony Orchestra. So, he had to find a balance between taking all the recording engineering classes and all the music classes.

That’s the kind of well-rounded person you want as both your engineer and as your producer.  His musician ears are trained to hear things like phrasing and musicality, while his engineering ear hears things like extra left hand sounds I may not hear from behind the guitar, and he can correct the balance with mastering.  Editing with him was so effortless. He’s unbelievably quick!

Because ee’re friends, it was fun to go out to lunch once in a while between sessions and just talk and relax. Recording is fundamentally difficult, but when you have someone you trust working double-duty as producer and engineer, the stress level drops exponentially.

GRASSMAN: The title song on the album, “Ex Tenebris,” you actually commissioned from fellow guitarist, Olga Amelkina-Vera. How did that come about?

HARTZELL: I was a guest artist alongside Olga in a February, 2010 festival, and was watching her classical guitar group, “Kithara Duo,” perform many of Olga’s own compositions. What struck me was how different each piece sounded. Usually, with composers, you can hear their hallmark right away – normally a fairly uniform sound from composition to composition. With Olga, her music changes drastically. Obviously, she has her own special touches which make her pieces sound “Olga,” but each piece uses a different technique or style. So, I asked if she would write me a solo work and she agreed. 

She asked me what I liked the most about her compositions, and what I was looking for. I said, “Everything!”  Of course, she couldn’t make me a medley of all of her pieces, but she took a few of her hallmark techniques and elaborated on them. She told me she wanted to include tremolo in “Ex Tenebris” because she thinks that it’s one of my hallmark techniques as a performer, so the piece is quite tailored to me.

The definition of a tremolo is, the “tremulous effect produced by rapid repetition of a single tone accompanied by a bass line melody or pattern.” So, the right hand has to work very hard at keeping the repeated melody sounding even.

Other elements in “Ex Tenebris,” include double pitches (which is done by muting the strings with the right hand and slapping the fret with the left hand), strummed chords, harmonics, and slurs.

GRASSMAN: On an emotional level, what does “Ex Tenebris” mean to you? What story does it tell?

HARTZELL: In Olga’s own words, “The composition reflects a psychological progression from darker to light moods.” However, I think anyone who performs this piece will be able to put their own story to it. She starts the piece in a melancholy way – very dark and moody, then shifting toward a happier mood, and ending with a triumphant passage. We have all travelled through life in stages of happiness and sadness.

For me personally, “Ex Tenebris” symbolizes a traumatic period in my life. I suffered from a serious hand injury, and for a while, lost the ability to play guitar. I was able to overcome the injury due to an amazing surgeon and serious rehabilitation. Now, I’m able to go on tour both as a solo artist and as a member of my classical guitar group, “Presti.” I can channel my emotions throughout “Ex Tenebris,” because, the music really digs deep into the performer’s psyche. The triumphant section at the end is my feeling of victory over what could have been the end of my career and life as a performing artist.

GRASSMAN: That’s so wonderful! And you’re going on an international tour to celebrate the release of your album in just a few weeks. What are some of the concerts you’re particularly looking forward to?

HARTZELL: I look forward to all my concerts. Ever since my recovery, I treat every performance as if it could be the last. I am so grateful that I can perform, that I’m excited at each and every opportunity. But, I will confess that I am looking forward to my concerts in Europe because … well … it’s Europe!  I will be going to France (my native country) in April, 2012.  I’m not sure what the exact France dates are yet, but I’m really excited about seeing my family again and performing there.

GRASSMAN: Any upcoming performances for your group, Presti?

HARTZELL: Yes, we have four concerts from September 24 through October 1 in New York State and Florida.  Concert details and additional dates will be posted on the Presti website soon.

GRASSMAN: You’re very active in charitable animal organizations, and I know you’ve adopted an arctic fox, and also performed a large number of concerts for animal shelters. What inspires you most when it comes to animal rescue and wildlife preservation?

HARTZELL: It’s funny, because I was never much of an animal person as a child. I never had a pet growing up. It was while living here in Houston that I adopted my first dog, Jordan. That was in 2001, and it was then that I found my love for all animals (even snakes!). We adopted Jordan from a no-kill animal shelter called STAAR. It’s directed by a retired woman, Sharon, who single-handedly runs the whole thing, and relies entirely on volunteers and community support for funding and aid.

When I witnessed this woman dedicating her retired life to managing a farm sheltering 50 dogs, I knew I needed to become involved. A year later I adopted a second dog, Lucy, and then volunteered at STAAR by building cages, cleaning cages, socializing the dogs, and taking care of new puppies. It was a lot of dirty, hard, manual labor, but I felt like I was really making a difference.

For about seven years now, I’ve hosted a “Santa Claws” Recital around Christmas time, where members of The Greater Houston Guitar Guild donate gifts off STAAR’s wish list. After each recital we load up Sharon’s van with all the goodies, from treats and toys, to towels and supplies.

Then, I started reading articles about endangered animals, the environment, and joined The National Wildlife Federation, Defenders of Wildlife, and World Wildlife Federation. Now, I’m very passionate about wildlife ecology and I do everything I can to live in an eco-conscious way. 

For Christmas of 2010, I adopted an arctic fox (no, I do not have a fox living in my back yard! He’s still in his natural habitat, but I have a pretty plaque and photo in my living room). Then in 2011 I adopted a grey wolf too. I think they’re one of the most misunderstood creatures, often unfairly slaughtered. But fuzzy creatures are not my only passion. I love sharks too and believe we have to preserve the food chain – including the top predators. 

Now, let me turn the tables on you Jennifer, and ask you a question! What was your inspiration for the art work on my album? Whenever I purchase a CD, I always receive such great pleasure looking at all the creative art. So, when I bought your last album, “Serpent Tales & Nightingales,” I fell in love with your artwork. To me, it complimented your music perfectly! By the way, I have received so many compliments regarding your artwork for “Ex Tenebris Lux,” including wonderful praise from Andy Mitchell and Olga Amelkina-Vera!  Please tell us about your inspirations.

GRASSMAN: Well, really when conceptualizing the artwork for “Ex Tenebris Lux,” I wanted first and foremost to visually depict the sound and feeling of the track listing. I think it’s vital that people, when they first lay eyes on an album, are able to get some inkling as to the style, feeling, message, and personality of the work, before they’ve necessarily had a chance to read the title or peruse media reviews.  I also wanted to capture the serenity and mystical peace you seem to achieve whenever you’re performing.

So, I used a lot of rich browns and floral textures to denote the woody sounds of the guitar, and the innately naturalistic melodies that the pieces seem to possess. For example, whenever I hear the song, “Drift,” I imagine autumn leaves floating down a mountain stream. Many of the songs take me emotionally to a place far from human habitation, where there are trees, deer, owls, wolves – maybe even fairies – a Garden of Eden I suppose you could say.

I think “Ex Tenebirs Lux” beautifully depicts your love for nature, and features pieces that tell beautiful, timeless stories. You capture a kind of spiritual peace that I think is really special, and which modern audiences will recognize and treasure greatly.

I’d like to thank my dear friend and fellow musician, Valerie Hartzell, for this fun and informative interview. Below are links to sites where you can find Hartzell and her music online, in addition to a partial listing of her upcoming performances.

Valerie Hartzell’s Links:

Official Website
Facebook
The Presti Website
Presti Facebook

Valerie Hartzell’s Upcoming Concerts:

Valerie Hartzell Solo Performance
October 27, 2011 11am and 4pm
Texas A&M University, Music Department
Contact: Isaac Bustos

Valerie Hartzell & Sandra Johnson (soprano) House Concert
November 6, 2011 at 5pm
Casa de Lucia: Houston, TX, USA
For information, call at 832.721.0357

Valerie Hartzell Solo Performance
Sunday, November 13, 2011 from 3:00 pm – 5:00 pm
Concert through the Philadelphia Classical Guitar Society
Settlement Music School: 416 Queen St. (free parking), Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA
www.PhillyGuitar.org/index.html

Houston Chamber Choir Concert
Saturday, December 10, 2011, 3:30 & 7:30 PM
Sunday, December 11, 2011, 3:30 & 7:30 PM
Monday, December 12, 7:30 PM – 1:30 AM
Chapel of the Villa de Matel: 6510 Lawndale Avenue, Houston, TX 77023, USA 
For many, the holiday season doesn’t officially begin until they’ve been to the Villa to hear the Chamber Choir. This year, the Houston Chamber Choir will feature Carols of the Southwest, a cycle of Spanish carols set for choir, marimba, guitar and harp, by Conrad Susa. The children of The Treble Choir of Houston will perform at both matinees under the direction of Marianna Parnas-Simpson.

Presti
February, 2012 (dates TBA)
Guitar Orchestra Festival, Plano, TX
For more information, go to: www.KitharaDuo.com

Valerie Hartzell Solo Concert
March 2, 2012
Methodist University, 5400 Ramsey Street, Fayetteville, NC 28311
For more information, go to: www.methodist.edu/music/calendar.htm

Annual ‘Classical Minds’ Guitar Institute and Competition, Texas Music Festival
June 12-17, 2012
Moores School of Music, University of Houston
For more information: http://www.class.uh.edu/music/texasmusicfestival/index.html

About Jennifer Grassman:
Singer, songwriter and pianist, Jennifer Grassman is an award-winning recording artist based in Houston, Texas. Subscribe by RSS feed and read more from Jennifer at www.JenniferGrassman.com. You can follow Jennifer on @JGrassman or Facebook.com/JenniferGrassmanMusic.


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Jennifer Grassman

Jennifer Grassman is a singer, songstress and pianist who inadvertently became a music industry trailblazer in the wake of the digital revolution. In addition to penning her quirky music industry column, "The Business of Being Diva," Jennifer writes songs and performs concert tours. Jennifer’s accomplishments include being nominated Houston’s best female vocalist and best songwriter and was named best keyboardist in the 2010 Houston Press Music Awards. She assisted in a campaign that raised more than $100,000 for CrimeStoppers and was commended by musician Tori Amos for her charitable efforts on behalf of domestic-abuse victims.  Jennifer has released three CDs, the most recent of which, "Serpent Tales & Nightingales," received accolades from Christianity Today, the Houston Chronicle and Brian Ray and the guitarist of Paul McCartney's band. You can check out Jennifer’s music at www.JenniferGrassman.com, like her on Facebook and tweet her at www.Twitter.com/JGrassman.

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