Harris Becker, Director of Guitar Studies at LIU Post, not only remembers the first guitar he ever got—he still has it. He was nine when his parents bought him a Goya guitar with “a beautiful neck and steel strings.
“A great guitar,” he said proudly. “It was easy to play. I learned how to read music and basic chords. Then the Beatles came along and I learned their tunes.”
He’s come a long way from Elmont Memorial High School, where he and a pal won a battle of the bands as a jazz improv duo. Becker enrolled as a music major at LIU Post, and later joined the faculty as an adjunct in 1976. Seven years later, he had his New York solo debut at Carnegie Recital Hall, an “elegant and intimate” space, he recalled, now known as Weill Recital Hall.
Becker founded the first Long Island Guitar Festival in 1993 and has been its director ever since.
“I was thinking of a way to bring these world-class artists to our music department,” he recalled. “It was also about bringing the process of making music to the general public so they could get deeper insight into how the artists do it.”
Since its humble inception, Becker’s musical celebration has taken off from a one-day gig to a six-day affair, which will run April 9-14 this year at LIU Post. Judging from its longevity and creative vitality, the Festival has gained a supportive audience and earned wide respect among musicians.
“This Festival’s reputation in the guitar world has put this music department on the map,” Becker said. “There are people from all over the world trying to play in this Festival.”
Besides featuring top-notch artists with international reputations, the Festival has also presented more than 40 world premieres—and that’s not all.
“The 2019 Festival is honored to be featuring the U.S. debut of acclaimed guitarist Laura Snowden, who was selected by Julian Bream to give the Julian Bream Trust concerts at Wigmore Hall,” noted Becker, adding that she also performed at the Royal Albert Hall and Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre at the invitation of classical guitarist John Williams. “Laura was the first guitarist to graduate from the world-renowned Yehudi Menuhin School in London, where classical guitar tuition was funded by a generous gift from the Rolling Stones.”
Part of the Festival’s appeal is that students and amateurs can take master classes and workshops, which, Becker explains, “helps them grow as musicians and flourish artistically.”
“Education is an integral part of Becker’s vision for the Festival,” Amy Tuttle wrote in Classical Guitar Magazinein 2013, “and student ensembles are prominently featured, giving young high school- and college-aged musicians an important venue in which to perform.”
“I’m always looking for young artists and people playing new music,” Becker said. He loves the magic of making discoveries—and his enthusiasm has never waned. “When I see new artists today, I’m just the way I was when I was a little kid.”
Sponsored by the Department of Music of the School of Performing Arts at LIU Post with support from the D’Addario Foundation for the Performing Arts, the Augustine Foundation, Savarez, Murphy’s Music, and LIU’s John P. McGrath Fund, the Festival has a special vibe.
“It’s not a trade show! We’re focused on the music—and that, to me, is where I want to keep it,” he said. Helping him run the Festival are John Meschi, Director of Music Technology at LIU, who serves as advisor and website manager, and former LIU student and Assistant Festival Director James Erickson, a talented instrumentalist who’s a member of the Artesian Guitar Quartet, which also includes Becker.
Becker’s own musical tastes run the gamut, from classical to pop, jazz and new music. A key early influence in his musical journey was his close friend’s vast record collection where Becker first heard jazz guitar virtuoso Django Reinhardt.
“I realized you could improvise,” he says fondly. “I didn’t really get that before!”
He might have been 13 when he first heard a recording by Spanish classical guitarist Andrés Segovia. “I remember sitting and listening with my mother and just thinking to myself, ‘Now this is something!’” What resonated with him was the polyphony. “When I heard these two different lines going in two different directions, it changed my life.”
True to his times, in seventh grade, he played electric guitar in a rock band.
“I was not that interested in copying Jimi Hendrix,” he said with a smile. “I was more interested in writing my own music.”
As his work has repeatedly shown, his keen interest has never wavered. But how many classical guitarists can say they ever took “a master class in songwriting from John Lennon”?
That’s how Becker’s friend at the Yale School of Music, Benjamin Verdery, described the encounter after he’d heard the tale. Becker was 17 and rather cocky, when he called up Lennon, who was being interviewed on WPLJ, a New York City FM station, and asked the rock star if he could read him some lyrics he’d written. Lennon, somewhat taken aback, said, “You mean right now?”
Yes, he did. After listening to Becker recite two verses, Lennon replied, “Off hand, I just like the first verse. That will do. There’s no point in repeating it.” Pressed for career advice, Lennon said simply, “You really have to just keep pushing and hope for the best, you know.”
Which is advice that Becker took to heart. Besides running the Long Island Guitar Festival at LIU Post, Becker is the co-founder and artistic director of the summer music festival in rural Quebec, “Songe d’été en musique.”
In person, Becker exudes a low-key warmth with a glint of wry amusement in his eye—when he’s not playing. If you really want to get him riled, just ask him if classical music is stuck in the past like some petrified fossil.
“That’s what we’re trying to show people—it’s not frozen in time!” he said adamantly. As he put it, if two great guitarists like Julian Bream and John Williams each tackle the same Bach composition, they’ll play the piece differently so it sounds fresh and unique.
“It’s like an actor reading a play,” Becker explained. “It’s the artist who makes it come alive.”
And the guitarists who come to Brookville in April will prove that point again and again and again.
Festival performers, concert schedules, and ticket information are available at www.liu.edu/gfest