by Paul Fowles

Ukrainian guitarist David Grigoryan

Ukrainian guitarist David Grigoryan

At the time of writing, much of the recent news from Ukraine has varied between grim and positively alarming. So it’s a pleasure and a relief to report that, on arriving in Kiev for the 6th “GitAs” Classical Guitar Concourse (March 26-28, 2015), the atmosphere was one of “business as usual,” with the metro full to capacity and the street-corner kiosks enjoying brisk trade.

Under the directorship of Kostyantyn Chechenya, who is also a key figure in the production of Gitara Ukraini magazine, the focal point of this three-day gathering is a competition whose 40-plus participants range from kids still attending elementary school to full-time music students in their late teens and early 20s. The youngest competitor, whose date of birth was July 2007, fielded a disarmingly elaborate set of variations on a well-known children’s song, culminating in a surprise recap of the theme sung in tonic sol-fa. Cheesy, of course, but it raised a smile with the audience and even the jury.

With no official translator on site, jury meetings were a somewhat opaque affair with inconclusive votes resolved by flipping a coin. One member of the panel even admitted to weighting his marks to favor the students of a former girlfriend! What he didn’t know was that I’d been aware of this all along and had been reducing my own marks accordingly. When in Rome . . .

But all the in camera dealings led to some outstanding performances in the winners’ concert. One player who particularly caught my ear was 24-year-old David Grigoryan, whose mature handling of the undervalued contemporary middleweights of Milan Tesar had placed him a very close second in the senior category. Currently based in the troubled city of Donetsk, this articulate and ambitious young man was keen to pick my brains on how he might make a living as a guitarist and teacher in the west. I hope my words were helpful, because talented musicians willing to work are an asset to the cultural life of any country.

With a polished closing set from the mostly amateur Kiev Guitar Orchestra (under the professional guidance of Boris Belsky), the curtain came down on a celebration of the guitar which Kostyantyn and his team have every reason to view with pride.

Guitarists Stella Dinkova (Bulgaria) and Darko Bageski (Macedonia)

Guitarists Stella Dinkova (Bulgaria) and Darko Bageski (Macedonia)

A few days later, I flew to the welcoming but far from prosperous nation of Bulgaria. Close to its western border with Serbia and the Republic of Macedonia, the city of Kyustendil plays host to the annual Kyustendil International Guitar Festival and Competition (April 1-4, 2015), presided over by Ivan Andonov. As in Kiev, the competition is central to proceedings, although in Kyustendil the program of professional performances is given equal prominence. With each evening comprising up to six 30-minute slots which never run on time, the Kyustendil experience offers a unique opportunity to discover Balkan musicians who are rarely heard outside their home territory. Nor is the agenda limited to guitarists—one regular attraction being the genial violin virtuoso Yosif Radionov. Other highlights this year included an ambitious setting of Vivaldi’s evergreen Four Seasons for two guitars and chamber orchestra, with soloists Stella Dinkova (Bulgaria) and Darko Bageski (Macedonia). On the second evening, guitarist/composer Nikolay Peev was in superb form both as a solo player and as accompanist to the ethereal voice of Neli Andreeva. Perhaps most memorable of all was the Kyustendil debut of the Kosovo Guitar Duo. Serving a familiar yet challenging program of Sor, Scarlatti and Falla, this gifted and charismatic sibling team received a deserved standing ovation.

Entry numbers for the competition were such that three juries were operating simultaneously in different parts of the Bratstvo Community Centre. This meant that roughly two-thirds of the playing took place in my absence, but I did happen to be in a position to chart the ascent of overall victor Yosif Shukerov. Central to Shukerov’s arsenal was a positively explosive account of Etude No.12 by Villa-Lobos. The triumphant final item in a ground-breaking set of studies, Etude No.12 is one of those pieces many can remember experiencing for the first time. For most of my generation, it was the LP recordings of Santos, Yepes or Bream, but my own first encounter was in a BBC broadcast by Eric Hill, hosted by Peter Sensier. Although Sensier is sadly long gone, Eric is still with us and released a wonderful CD of Carulli’s chamber music in the year of his 70th birthday. Long may the man prosper!

(Photos by Paul Fowles)