Flashes From La Guitarra California 2017: Christopher Parkening Honored and More

classical guitarist christopher parkening

By Blair Jackson

Once again I had a fantastic time at the binennial La Guitarra California festival September 22–24 in lovely and charming San Luis Obispo, which sits inland a few miles from gorgeous Central Coast Pacific beaches, and is surrounded by  picturesque hills and acre after acre of rolling vineyards. As always, Festival Director Russ De Angelo put together an extraordinary lineup for the three-day affair, including concerts by guitarists from the U.S., Sweden, Azerbaijan, Argentina, France, and Turkey, along with five master classes, two free outdoor concerts, a guitar art show, a luthier fair, and two guitar auctions.

Herewith are a few photos and scattershot reflections from my time at La Guitarra 2017. Because photography is forbidden at the concerts, I had to catch the artists when and where I could. You’ll have to imagine them all with guitars!  And perhaps some other photos will pop up (though I never saw a photographer at any concert, which is too bad.)

La Guitarra California’s Lifetime Achievement Award was given to the legendary Christopher Parkening, pictured here at right on Day Two of the festival with Swedish guitarist and composer Johannes Möller, who closed the festival on Sunday along with his duo partner, Laura Fraticelli.  Both Möller and Parkening also gave master classes.

The Friday evening event took place at the fabulous 1,200-seat Harman Hall and was focused primarily on Parkening, who was given the festival’s prestigious Lifetime Achievement Award for his incredible career achievements dating back to the 1960s, when he began is meteoric ascent to become the most popular and influential classical guitarist America has ever produced. I won’t recount the details of his impressive career here, but would urge you read this fascinating interview which appeared in Classical Guitar in the summer 2015 issue.

The award presentation included a wonderful short film about the guitarist’s life and career, covering everything from his master class with Segovia when Parkening was just 15, to playing in a packed baseball stadium during a Christian religious event. Though he is retired from regular performing, Parkening still teaches and, of course, he is the man behind the triennial guitar competition that bears his name at Pepperdine University in Malibu, California. On the occasion of this award, he took the stage with the amazing baritone singer Jubilant Sykes, with whom he recorded an album in 2007 called Jubilation. Their four-song mini-set opened with a haunting version of “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child,” then offered a passionate Spanish piece that gave each a chance to show some flamenco flair and fire, followed by a solo number from each—Sykes drawing from Negro spirituals and Parkening playing the 19th century tune “America” (often called “My Country ‘Tis of Thee”) in an arrangement by Philip Lester.  Very moving, as was every second the two were onstage.

Below, listen to the album version of Parkening and Sykes performing Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child

Here’s the magnificent main concert hall, where the opening night concert and festivities took place. Several hundred people filled nearly all of the downstairs and part of the first balcony; an impressive turnout and a highly appreciative crowd of guitar-lovers!

That smiling chap above is Azerbaijani guitarist Rovshan Mamedkuliev, who was given the distinct honor of opening the Lifetime Achievement Award concert at Harman Hall with a 45-minute program of his own. (That’s him the next morning, not in his tuxedo, at the lovely Quality Suites motel, where all the artists stayed, five minutes away from the campus of Cal Poly University, where the festival took place.) The 2012 GFA winner, who lives in Moscow, was positively magnificent as he worked his way through pieces by Llobet, Rodrigo, 20th-century Azerbaijani composer Fikret Amirov, and finally Tárrega’s Gran Jota, which was simply spectacular, full of fireworks, breathless runs, and lilting passages. All things considered, this was my favorite performance of the whole festival. I can’t wait to see him play again!

Here he is playing the Gran Jota in 2016:


Outside the Spanos Theatre, where all the concerts except for opening night took place, I ran into Turkish guitarist/composer Celil Refik Kaya, fresh from his own splendid performance, which included selections by Giuliani, Rodrigo, Bach’s Goldberg Variations, Kaya’s own transcription of Granados’ Valses poéticos, three excellent Jorge Morel pieces, and perhaps best of all, Kaya’s fine three-movement Sonatina, which I’m certain is going to start turning up in the repertoire of other guitarists. I’ve seen him play a couple of times now, and I’m always very impressed.

Hey, let’s all give three cheers to Festival Director Russ De Angelo, who does such a great job of making the trains run on time (so to speak), always appears to be calm and focused (he’ll tell you he’s not), and never for an instant loses his irrepressible enthusiasm for the music and the performers. He’s a genuine fan who clearly gives his all to make the Festival as good as it is. As I took this picture he offered his own caption: “This is me after not sleeping for four days straight!” Thanks, Russ!

Wait, there’s no guitarist here! Nope, sorry. This is actually the stage setup at the Spanos Theatre for French guitarist Jérémy Jouve (GFA winner in 2003), who knocked me out when I saw him at this year’s GFA in Fullerton (covered in some depth, and including a photo, here). His Saturday afternoon concert at the Spanos was bookended by four marvelously diverse pieces composed by the modern French composer Mathias Duplessy (Jouve’s 2015 album Cavalcade consists entirely of Duplessy pieces), including one North American premiere—the lyrical and in parts quite dark Vermeer’s Labyrinth, which he played on a borrowed, differently tuned Gil Carnal guitar, pictured above; his regular guitar is a Simon Marty—and his showstopping finale, Olan-Bator, which simulates Mongol horsemen riding across the plains. I also really enjoyed his take on Rodrigo’s Sonata Giocosa, and his touching encore selection, Roland Dyens’ arrangement of The Moon Represents My Heart. The man sitting next to me literally had tears streaming down his face after that one. It was sublime! (Dyens felt like an unseen presence throughout the festival. Russ De Angelo was his American manager and good friend, and Dyens even closed La Guitarra two years ago.)

Below, a video of Jouve playing Cavalcade:

At the Luthier Fair, when we stopped by to say hello to  southern California guitar-maker Mónica Esparza (left), she was chatting with one of our favorites, New York-based Spanish guitarist Virginia Luque, whose latest album is a two-CD set called Bach ‘Goldberg Variations’ for Guitar.

Other cool performances I saw:

Jason Vieaux blew me away with his Saturday afternoon performance which, true to form, ran the gamut from Giuliani and Bach to Pat Metheny and Antonio Carlos Jobim (and plenty more). I heard three big Bach pieces performed on Saturday—all superbly rendered—but there was something special about the way Vieaux handled the Prelude, Fugue and Allegro, BWV 998 that I have difficulty articulating. It was more than just the natural smoothness and utterly rhythmic command with which he executed it; it was also the deep feeling he communicated with little vibrato touches throughout. He is a truly special player.

Meng Su (winner of both the youth and adult Parkening Competitions in different years) showed why she is in such high demand for festivals the world over (both as a solo performer and with Yameng Wang in the Beijing Guitar Duo). Her nicely varied program was highlighted for me by her outstanding reading of Castelnuovo-Tedesco’s Sonata ‘Omaggio a Boccherini’, Op. 77 and her spirited concluding effort on three of William Walton’s Five Bagatelles. Also special was a piece written for her by Sérgio Assad called Sun Wukong’s Toccata which, though mostly modern-sounding, also contained a brief passage that sounded like classic Chinese folk music.

Assad was also a big part of the Sunday afternoon set by Marc Teicholz, who performed a warm and vibrant version of Suite Brasileira 4—so full of Brazilian folk allusions, including that exciting, percussive “Batuque” finish—and then followed that up with Assad’s contrastingly more modern, angular, and complex Imbriccata, which is a piece I’ve really come to like after repeated listenings (beginning with the Biasini Competition in San Francisco in January 2016; Assad wrote it to be the set piece for the competing  guitarists). Teicholz ended his performance with a lovely tribute to Roland Dyens: the late guitarist’s arrangements of two jazz classics, All of Me and Take the ‘A’ Train. Sweet!

The Incendio Guitar Duo—Jean-Pierre Durand and Liza Carbé—played a delightful, crowd-pleasing free concert in the courtyard right outside the Spanos Theatre, as they had two years ago when I first attended La Guitarra. In this duo configuration (Incendio is also a larger band with bass and drums and sometimes other musicians) much of the material was flamenco-inspired (or actual flamenco), although the tune that seemed to get the biggest response from the crowd of guitar fans and curious passers-by lounging on the grass and sitting beneath the trees was the old Mason Williams hit “Classical Gas,” very exciting in the hands of these two thrilling players.

Alas, my greatest regret about the weekend is that I was not able to stay for the last concert of the festival by the Möller-Fraticelli Guitar Duo. I adore guitar duos and everything I’ve seen by these two on YouTube has been very impressive. To assuage my guilt for missing them, here’s a video of the duo in action, performing J.K. Mertz’s Unruhe:

And let me give two other shout-outs: The exceptional guitarist and teacher (and current head of GFA) Martha Masters came up from L.A. to give a master class on Sunday morning, and that afternoon the Santa Maria High School Guitar Orchestra played a free concert outside the Spanos; sorry I missed that, too.

Last but not least… Three favorites of mine from the Guitar Art show, located in the midst of the Luthier Fair: Detail of a full-size mosaic guitar by Michele Knecht

Abstract by Julio Desmont.

3-D ceramic hanging by Karob Studios