Valerie Hartzell, living in Anchorage for the time being, is one of America's notable guitar virtuosos

Mike Dunham
Marc Lester

Fanfare Magazine called guitarist Valerie Hartzell "a master at creating moods." Classical Guitar magazine praised her "impeccable musicianship and technique." Top reviewers on Amazon have chimed in on her CD "Ex Tenebris Lux," B. Noelle Huling saying the performance is "absolutely breathtaking" and Luz Sirbenet saluting Hartzell as an "extraordinarily talented performer ... a classical guitarist of major importance."

Anchorage may know her better as the neighbor lady walking her dogs on area trails. The international award-winning virtuoso has lived here for the past two years.

On Sunday this world-class guitarist will give a free recital at Anchorage Lutheran Church as part of the Concerts at Anchorage Lutheran series. Alaskans will have the chance to hear her do what she says she was born to do: advocate for the guitar as a vehicle for serious, elegant and wide-ranging music.

Born in Rhode Island, raised in Dallas and France (her parents met in Paris), Hartzell said she was probably 2 years old when her obsession with the guitar became more than her mother could ignore.

"I knew this is what I had to do," she said. "Not a doubt in my mind. She didn't want me to start, but I begged her."

Her mother was also a conservatory-trained guitarist. She was speaking about her daughter to Jose Ramirez, esteemed maker of instruments for masters like Andres Segovia. "She said, 'My daughter really wants to play. I need to find a baby guitar.' And he said, 'Why don't I just make her one?'"

She recalled slapping at the precious half-size instrument. "My mother would walk by, teach me something, then I'd go back to beating on the guitar."

But by the time she was 3 she knew the basics and could sight read sheet music. Her mother saw she was serious and became her first instructor.

Since then Hartzell has performed in America and Europe, created a guitar festival for the University of Houston, won and judged competitions, debuted new work by several composers and formed what may be the world's first, and maybe only, all-woman professional classical guitar ensemble, Presti.

"There are certain fields in the music business that are dominated by certain genders," she said. "Guitar groups tend to be dominated by men. I mean, there are a lot of male ensembles -- the Romeros, the Los Angeles Guitar Quartet -- but not a whole lot out there with women."

The trio includes Hartzell's colleagues Lynn McGrath and composer Olga Amelkina-Vera, who wrote "Ex Tenebris" for Hartzell. It's the final piece on Hartzell's most recent CD, "Ex Tenebris Lux" ("out of darkness, light") . They finished recording their first (yet-to-be-released) album this past winter.

Rehearsing for tours is something of an issue, she said, given the remoteness of Anchorage. But she sounded exuberant about being here.

"When my husband (geophysicist Robert Nejako) said to me, 'Hey, my company is thinking of sending us to Alaska. Do you want to go?' it took me two seconds to shout, 'Hell yes!' We're big animal lovers. We love the mountains and skiing."

She said she revels in the spectacular scenery and walking the couple's two mixed-breed rescue dogs, Lucy and Jodie on the trail system next to where they live.

Hartzell now plays a Greg Byers instrument. There are hurdles in convincing the public to take solo guitar recitals as seriously as piano or violin recitals, she said. "We're not an orchestral instrument and there's a lot more repertoire written for them. Fortunately, we're getting more pieces for guitar by contemporary composers, so there's something of a renaissance under way."

Her attention to that new repertoire has received favorable comment. As Christopher Davis, writing for Classical Guitar magazine, put it, "Hartzell stepped outside a lot of the old warhorses of concert pieces. More artists should do this."

In addition to works by "old masters" of the guitar, Ponce, Tarrega and Mangore, the "Ex Tenebris Lux" CD features John Anthony Lennon's 1981 "Another's Fandango," a special-effects charged piece written for David Starobin, and the very recent "Drift" by Andy Mitchell, in which a mysterious introduction is followed by a pop ballad-like melody.

Ameikina-Vera's "Ex Tenebris" is a big and multi-faceted composition. It opens with a series of hard, somber chords leading to a sad tune played tremolo accompanied by broken chords in the bass. A dark, meditative phase follows and then the mood lightens and the piece ends in a kind of syncopated ritual dance.

Davis also praised Hartzell's "beautiful, full sound that filled the hall," her "refined musicianship" and "extremely well planned" program. "She's clearly a thoughtful, refined musician with the technique to pull off all of her musical ideas," he wrote.

"One thing I hate is when people call the guitar a 'relaxing' instrument," Hartzell said. "It's so diverse. It can be Spanish and fiery, royal, dynamic, yet romantic and lyrical. It's such a chameleon."

Her stint in Alaska may be limited by her husband's contract. "We love it here," she said. But she acknowledged that there are practical inconveniences, including several long trips to the Lower 48 each year, mostly to Texas where she continues to have ongoing responsibilities directing the Houston festival.

For the time being, she teaches a few students locally and others, by Skype, out of state. "It's amazing what you can do with this new technology." Technology also helps her exchange ideas with the other members of Presi. When they tour, they just have to get together and practice for eight to 10 hours before each concert, she said.

But the real problem with the long commute is the temperature shift.

"When you leave Anchorage at 22 degrees, 70 degrees is a shock. Then I go to Florida and it's 80. I love the people of Houston, but that weather! One hundred percent humidity at 110 degrees outside!

"I love the cold. I gotta stop going to these Southern states."



Reach Mike Dunham at or 257-4332.