This Valentine’s Day Hopewell Valley Vineyards in Pennington will be doing its part to stoke the fires of the soul when the flamenco guitarist Victor Tarassov performs in one of the winery’s tasting rooms.
He is part of Hopewell Valley Vineyards co-owner Violetta Neri’s seasonal recipe, “You have some really nice red wine, flamenco music … and happy Valentine’s Day!”
Tarassov, 48, is not a winemaker, just a guitarist who grew up in Princeton Junction, picked up the instrument when he was a teenager, and graduated from West Windsor-Plainsboro High School in 1984. He studied guitar at Berklee College of Music in Boston before focusing on the flamenco style.
His parents still reside in the area. His mother was an oncological nurse; his father was an electrical engineer with AT&T who dabbles in string theory discussions with friends who introduced him to the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton. He has younger siblings: a brother who is an investment entrepreneur in Princeton and a sister, an artist in San Francisco who has worked for the cosmetics company Sephora.
In addition to his work as a guitarist, Tarassov has also worked as a psychotherapist for nearly 25 years, with a private practice in Mercer County and for Family Empowerment Associates in Atlantic County. He hopes to continue performing after he retires from psychotherapy.
The musician cites the influence of guitarist Ottmar Liebert, who popularized “Nouveau Flamenco” and recorded an album of that name in 1990. Tarassov says he is working on an album himself. His association with Liebert began after Tarassov attended a concert by Liebert in 2006, and they started corresponding by E-mail. Tarassov uploaded recordings to the online sites Dropbox and SoundCloud, which help him share his music with Liebert.
He has a page on the website reverbnation.com, with videos of him playing guitar and also offering downloadable music.
“He’s my main influence.” Tarassov says of Liebert. “He told me, ‘Victor, you just need to play and let it flow out of your heart, and not edit yourself so much.’ I think the biggest thing is it gets out of my head and is very passionate,” Tarassov says of the flamenco style, the Spanish folk music and dance form most closely associated with southern Spain’s Andalusia region. “For me, it’s very free and relaxing.”
That advice from Liebert, the multiple Grammy Award-winning guitarist, certainly speaks to the passion of flamenco music. For those who think of stern-faced dancers stomping rhythmically in intense displays, that is not what Tarassov’s appearances usually feature. As his online videos suggest, he usually appears with a percussionist and another guitarist. He has also performed with professional dancers.
“I haven’t done it recently because it’s expensive to have them,” he says. Nevertheless members of the audience often dance while he performs.
“The music is passionate, and it has a Mediterranean vibe that helps people relax. I don’t play really loud. Sometimes I play with strings, and it gets very mellow. I think the sound of a nylon string guitar and just playing the old style flamenco guitar — people like that.”
“I think the most challenging component is playing with a blend of the Muslim, Jewish, and Moorish cultures,” he says, “playing with the passion for the suffering and the joy is a little difficult if you haven’t been exposed to that. There’s no book on how to play this music.”
He and his wife of eight years, Kathy, a manager at Starbucks in the Mercer Mall in Lawrenceville, used to live in California, and Tarassov says he performs at Wild Horse Vineyards in Paso Robles, California, halfway between Los Angeles and San Francisco, once or twice a year. As Tarassov described how they met and got together, it seemed they embodied as many influences as flamenco music itself. Kathy is from Colorado. They met at a Starbucks in San Francisco, Tarassov says, and they own a Pekinese poodle, whose name, Sonoma, is consistent with their West Coast connections. She is studying to become a physical therapist. He is father to three grown daughters.
The flamenco genre has been a battleground for purists and new practitioners for some time. Today flamenco music reflects the several influences that were present when it was created in 18th-century Spain, and, to the chagrin of those who think it should only be one thing, it has also embraced elements of contemporary pop.
“Flamenco is not pure,” Tarassov says. “I don’t get into those wars. You have the Moors, the Christians, Jews, and Muslims, and their influences came together.”
He says he observes traditional flamenco harmonic structures but varies the rhythms. “I think the Gypsy Kings are an example of that,” he says of the group that shared a Grammy Award in the World Music category earlier this year with Ladysmith Black Mambazo. “People love that music. It connects with the audience.”
“I’ve known him a long time. His music is unique,” Neri says, adding that Tarassov has performed at Hopewell Valley Vineyards during the last three years.
“It started as a work of passion, a hobby, then it took over us,” she says about starting a vineyard with her husband, Sergio, 10 years ago. “There is nothing wrong with central New Jersey (for winemaking). You choose the proper vines and everything is fine. Winemaking is an ancient art, more than a science.”
Neri says the winery regularly hosts musicians with styles conducive to enjoying a fine aromatic beverage that could lead to other intoxicating developments.
“He’s a great musician; we love Victor,” she says.
Valentine’s Day with Victor Tarassov, Hopewell Valley Vineyard, 46 Yard Road, Pennington. Friday, February 14, 6 to 9 p.m. Free for performance. In addition to selling wine, Hopewell Valley Vineyards offers a light fare menu.
Hopewell Valley Vineyard. Sunday, March 16 and Friday, May 16.
Alor Cafe, Staten Island, New York. Saturday, April 19.
For more information visit www.victortarassov.com or hopewellvalleyvineyards.com or call 609-737-4465.