GFA 2016: Winners, Performances, and More (Part One)

By Blair Jackson

By nearly every measurable and intangible, the Guitar Foundation of America’s 2016 convention, held in Denver, Colorado, June 21–25, was a grand success. Attendance appeared to be up from last year’s event in Oklahoma City, the mood was uniformly upbeat, and an extraordinary group of performers, lecturers, teachers, and competitors made for an entertaining and stimulating week of classical guitar-oriented activities. Denver, and especially the host campus of Metropolitan State University, proved to be extremely hospitable and convenient for the hundreds of attendees. There’s nothing quite like wandering around and having the snow-capped Rocky Mountains as part of the backdrop in the far distance. The weather was typically hot for this time of year (though not quite as scalding as OKC last year), and of course it wouldn’t be Denver in summer without some passing lightning and thunder storms. But inside the main venues at MSU—the King Center performing arts complex, which has a beautiful, acoustically splendid concert hall and a smaller recital space (which I did not see any events in); the Arts building, where lectures and lessons took place; and the stately old St. Cajetan’s Church, home of the luthier fair—there was blissful, cool escape from the elements.

I was only able to attend three days this year, from midday Tuesday through midday Friday, so my report will, alas, not cover concerts by Jason Vieaux and Ben Verdery, or the finals of the competitions. But I did manage to hit several concerts and a few lectures during my time there, so over the next two days I’ll be offering a few thoughts about what I saw and heard.

But first: THE WINNERS! As always, the competitors represented many countries from around the world and the winners reflect that geographical diversity.

(L to R) Andrea De Vitis, Pavel Kukhta,Celil Refik Kaya, Xavier Jara
(L to R) Andrea De Vitis, Pavel Kukhta,Celil Refik Kaya, Xavier Jara

2016 GFA International Concert Artist Competition
Rose Augustine Grand Prize: Xavier Jara (United States)
2nd Place: Andrea De Vitis (Italy)
3rd Place: Pavel Kukhta (Belarus)
4th Place: Celil Refik Kaya (Turkey)

2016 GFA International Youth Competition
(Senior Division)

1st Place: Kevin Loh (Singapore)
2nd Place: Xu Kun Liu (Canada)
3rd Place: Zhangxiang Shi (China)
4th Place: Michael Vascones (USA)

(Junior Division)
1st Place: Tiange Wang (China)
2nd Place: Aytahn Benavi (USA)
3rd Place: Jack Davisson (USA)
4th Place: Ryan Chen (USA)

And now, onto Part One of my report from GFA. Because I couldn’t possibly review every piece from every concert I saw, I decided to spotlight one piece per group/artist, and to give a brief overview of the lectures I attended. I’ve provided some links to versions of some of the pieces I discuss—these are not from GFA, where recording and video are verboten, and mostly by artists other than the ones I saw. The point is to give you the sound and flavor of the occasionally obscure pieces discussed.  These are presented in the order in which I saw them, from Tuesday afternoon to Friday afternoon.


Aleph Guitar Quartet. This German quartet specializes in playing contemporary music, so I knew I was probably going to be in for a challenging first concert, but I didn’t know the half of it! Over the course of an hour, the ensemble—Andres Hernandez Alba, Tillman Reinbeck, Wolfgang Sehringer, and Christian Wernicke—performed four quite unconventional modern pieces, three of them from the 2000s and the fourth a version of John Cage’s 1947 Music for Marcel Duchamp, originally a prepared-piano piece, arranged for guitar quartet about a decade ago by Polish guitarist Martin Smôlka. (Of course, both Cage and Duchamp were rebels in their respective fields, but this actually turned out to be the most “normal” piece in the Aleph program!)

However, the number I want to talk about was the group’s opening piece, a 2012 “microtonal guitar quartet” written by Arturo Fuentes (b. 1975) which really threw me for a loop. Sitting in the front row, center, I was immediately drawn into the piece, which begins with close to two minutes a fast, fluttering, hypnotic rhythmic figure that sounds sort of like a cross between industrial machine noise and a hive of bees. As it continues its relentless drive, tonal subtleties, including deliberate squeaks, emerge and change the feel of the piece. There is a passage dominated by warped-sounding metal slides swooping and crying; rhythmic and surprisingly musical rubbing on the strings; some creative use of harmonics; loud, crashing dissonant strums; tapping on the strings percussively with sticks; and an eventual return of sorts to the original idea. It was wild but it worked, and it set the tone for turned out to be an utterly compelling set that literally ended with all four players simultaneously spitting out a wad of gum on the last beat of a piece. Clearly not for everyone, but I loved the whole thing unreservedly.  Here’s an audio version of Aleph playing “Tonic.”

Raphaella Smits. Smits is a treasure of the guitar world—a consummate player (a true master of the 8-string guitar) and an important interpreter of music from many eras and styles, from Baroque to 19th century to modern works. Everything she played at her very well-attended and enthusiastically received evening showcase was full of feeling and technically superb, but the piece that stuck with me most was Tombeau in memory of M.Comte De Logy, by Silvius Leopold Weiss (1686-1750). Before playing the piece, Smits announced she had promised to dedicate it to the memory of one of her students who had died the previous week. It is a deep, somber, and beautiful work—elegiac and poetic, and in this case an aching tribute to a fallen member of the guitar community. Smits looked close to tears; I was, too. YouTube also has an audio version of Smits playing this piece.

Also, honorable mention to the opening ensemble group, the Youth Guitar Orchestra, conducted by Chuck Hulihan, who performed two movements of British composer Mark Houghton’s Dance Suite: “Tango” and “Ballad.” Having seen a less-than-spectacular youth ensemble at GFA in Oklahoma City last year, I was not expecting this group to be so in-sync, in-tune, and powerful. Here is a version of “Tango” played by the Sydney Classical Guitar Society Ensemble that sounds similar to the GFA version.

Stephen Goss (lecture). The esteemed Mr. Goss is, of course, one of the most prolific and admired modern composers of guitar music (as well as orchestral, chamber, choral, and other works), but at GFA was a lecturer and “narrator” for a an ensemble piece (see below). His talk was fascinating—an in-depth discussion of how John Williams and Julian Bream work with composers on commissioned pieces, with an intense focus on a pair of recent works—Julian Anderson’s Catalan Peasant with Guitar, which was premiered at Wigmore Hall in London last fall by the sensational up-and-coming British guitarist Laura Snowden (commissioned by Bream); and Harrison Birtwistle’s “high modernist” (to quote Goss) 2013 work Construction with Guitar Player, (commissioned by Williams), intended to be played by Jonathan Leathwood, who ultimately could not play the premiere due to injury and was replaced late in the process by a fine young player, Andrey Lebedev.

Laura Snowden, Julian Anderson, and Julian Bream backstage at Wigmore Hall
Laura Snowden, Julian Anderson, and Julian Bream backstage at Wigmore Hall

Goss noted that in the case of the Birtwistle piece, Bream made “lots and lots of spontaneous suggestions,” some of which the composer heeded, and others he did not, and contrasted that with a piece the great Cuban composer Leo Brouwer had once written for Bream: “Brouwer wouldn’t let Bream touch a note!” In the case of the Anderson work, guitarist Snowden, more than Bream, was quite involved with the composer, suggesting some specific fingerings and other ways to make the piece more guitaristic. Goss said that it was Anderson’s goal to create a piece that was “playable, but not necessarily familiar to guitarists.” Goss’ talk was accompanied by audio interview nuggets from some of the principals, as well as audio examples (with accompanying sheet music) from those two pieces.

Ensemble Showcase. I was really impressed by the four ensembles at this late-morning showcase. All displayed a wide range, and admirable precision, projection, and personality.

First up was the Retrograde Guitar Quartet, four high school students from the Harrison School for the Arts in Lakeland, Florida. My favorite piece of their four was Andrew York’s “Quiccan,” which the talented composer wrote in the mid-’90s during his stint in the Los Angeles Guitar Quartet. (You can find a video of the LAGQ performing it here.) The piece mixes several different styles, from pulsing rhythmic figures to dancing melodic lines, some wood-slapping that feels almost Middle Eastern, and an exciting crescendo. Nicely done!

The Mile High Guitar Ensemble, from Denver (nicknamed the Mile High City because of its elevation), had ten members, ages 12 to 17, who attend the Stephen Bondy Guitar Studio. After a nice version of two Bach preludes, the group really hit its stride with the short Guitarchestra #3 by Mark Houghton (who has written much for guitar ensembles). It’s a buoyant, upbeat piece with bright harmonies, which the youngsters delivered with appropriate gusto.

Hailing from the famous Peabody Conservatory of Music in Baltimore, Maryland, the Youngs and the Restless (two of the guitarists are named Young) peaked for me with their pretty and sensitive reading of French impressionist composer Claude Debussy’s solo piano piece, Rêverie, arranged for quartet by London-born, Buffalo, NY-based Jeremy Sparks. I was not familiar with the piece and found quite enchanting.

The last group, the eight-member San Francisco Conservatory Guitar Ensemble, under the direction of David Tanenbaum, played just one piece, but it was amazing—the 2015 commission Nazcam by Chilean composer Javier Farias (1973), which I saw premiered at the Biasini Festival in San Francisco in January of this year. Besides the eight Conservatory guitarists, the piece also prominently features a pair of narrators evocatively punctuating—and at times dominating—the music, with parts of an epic “history-dream poem” by Guatemalan writer Miguel Angel Asturias, being read in Spanish (Ricardo Izanola) and English (Steve Goss, who came directly from his lecture mentioned above). I liked this second version even better than the premiere, mostly because the narrators could be heard so clearly (Goss is a natural!) and the poetry and music felt so seamless, as it should. It’s a wonderful, moving piece.

(Coming in Part Two: A guitar society roundtable offers solid advice; last year’s GFA winner shines brightly, Fabio Zanon, Duo Melis, and more)