For the 18th Ivor Mairants Guitar Award, administered by the Worshipful Company of Musicians, the competition returned on March 23rd to the 1901 Arts Club in London. This charming venue, easily accessible by foot from Waterloo Station, offered excellent facilities for the event, with a warm-up room on the top floor, a comfortable lounge and bar on the first floor, and, at ground level, a recital room well-suited to the classical guitar in its size and ambience. It certainly encouraged all the performers to give their best, as they sought to emulate the high standards of previous IMGA winners. Among the rewards, for those who are successful, are prize money, a valuable collected edition of guitar music, funding towards tuition in playing jazz-influenced contemporary music on the classical guitar, a solo recital at the Guildford Festival, and an audition for the Musicians’ Company concerts, which take place in some of London’s most renowned venues.

The requirements of the competition stipulate that every participant must select movements, lasting five to seven minutes, from Ivor MairantsJazz Sonata. The other item in their program has to be chosen from a set list, which for 2016 ranged from established concert repertoire by Manuel Ponce, Joaquín Turina, and Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco to newer compositions by Michael Berkeley, John McLeod, and Peter Sculthorpe.

This year, the number of entrants was at a record level and their countries of origin displayed the universal popularity of the guitar, stretching from Sweden in the north to Australia in the south. There were many promising performances for the jury to weigh, but in the end three stood out most: Mircea Gogoncea, in third place, showed a remarkable skill in the more virtuosic passages of Castelnuovo-Tedesco’s “Capriccio Diabolico,” written in homage to Paganini, and was also able to convey much of its lyricism; but he was sometimes prone to unevenness of tone and slightly compressing rhythmic values. Both he and Andrey Lebedev, in second place, chose the same movements by Mairants—Lebedev took a more relaxed approach, which suited the music a bit better, and followed it with an intensely felt interpretation of Sculthorpe’s “From Kakadu,” the only significant drawback of which was a lack of precision in the syncopations of the slow sections.

On the other hand, the winner, Michael Butten (pictured above), always  appeared in control, whether moving from strict to free tempo in the jazz pieces, or communicating the character of every phrase and section of McLeod’s “Fantasy on Themes from Britten’s ‘Gloriana’”—this was playing of exceptional accomplishment, distinguished by a natural warmth of tone and finely judged nuance of expression.

Also noteworthy were performances by  Nestor Beveridge, Sam Rodwell, and Ross Wilson.

The competition was expertly organized by Hugh Lloyd, the Company’s Clerk, assisted by Amanda Ratcliffe. Sponsors included the D’Addario Foundation for the Performing Arts and Ediciones Joaquín Rodrigo. On the panel of adjudicators were Michael Lewin (non-voting Chairman), Craig Ogden, Christopher Stell and Xuefei Yang.       —Michael Lewin

(Below: Ivor Mairants, 1908-1998)

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