By Blair Jackson

Picking up where we left off in our last report, Wednesday evening (June 21) at GFA featured a spectacular concert headlined by French virtuoso Jérémy Jouve—winner of the GFA competition 2003—as well as a fine opening piece by the Youth Guitar Orchestra under the marvelously spirited direction of Chuck Hulihan.

Guitarists of Tomorrow, Today
I always enjoy the Youth Orchestra’s contribution at GFA. It’s wonderful to see 32 fresh-faced teen guitarists crowded together in three rows across the full wide stage, getting their chance to play together for a large audience. Just the parent attendance alone helps pack the house, and you’ve never seen so many cell phones taking pictures at the lip of the stage once the orchestra was seated several minutes before the concert started. This year’s group undoubtedly benefited from the newest feature of the GFA convention, the Guitar Summit sleepover camp for middle school and high school students, which takes place simultaneously and allows young guitarists to really get immersed in their craft.

The parents and students certainly had reason to be pleased and satisfied with the Guitar Orchestra’s initial public performance that night at the Little Theatre. These ensembles can occasionally be somewhat unwieldy, but this year’s group (like last year’s in Denver), sounded smooth as silk and utterly together from beginning to end. The piece they performed was very appealing: the three-movement Around the World by Canadian composer Patrick Roux. The first section, “C Ayre (Homage to the Air and Sea),” opened with a slow progression that reminded me a bit of the perennial crowd-pleaser, Pachelbel’s  Canon in D, but soon departed for faster rhythms and other textures, including an effective crescendo that landed back smoothly at a restatement of the quiet opening theme. The second movement, “Ama-zon-E (Homage to the Forests),” included some percussive passages that found various members of the ensemble tapping on the top and sides of their instruments, and other parts where a pulse was created with insistent thrumming on the low strings. The third movement, “A Round for the World (Homage to the World)” was, as you might expect from the title, optimistic in tone and highly melodic, with what struck me as a slightly Scottish-sounding motif that was quite catchy. Nicely done all around. Who knows how many of these kids might make it to the GFA as competitors or even solo performers some day? So what did the Youth Guitar Orchestra do to follow their debut triumph? Thursday they were scheduled to play their second-ever gig: at Disneyland, just down the road a ways from here; sweet!

Chuck Hulihan and the Youth Guitar Orchestra. Photo: Kenneth Kam for GFA

Jouve Conquers GFA
After a few minutes clearing the stage of chairs and music stands, the esteemed Mr. Jouve emerged from the wings and wasted no time in completely winning over the crowd with a fabulously played rendition of Fédérico Mompou’s Suite Compostelana from 1962, written for Andrés Segovia. Jouve provided some interesting background on the piece, noting that Mompou was not pleased with a number of the alterations Maestro Segovia made to the piece; indeed, Jouve said the version he played contained two pages of music excised by Segovia and “restored” by Segovia repertoire curator Angelo Gilardino (himself a great composer, of course). Jouve also described its six movements thusly: “Preludio” and “Coral” were inspired by Bach (more obvious in the second than the first, perhaps); “Cuna” is a lullaby; “Recitativo” is darker and more reflective; “Cancion” lightens the mood; and the concluding “Muniera” is based on a Galician dance. Jouve talked about the piece overall as being “delicate”; it is that, and also somewhat melancholy in places. All in all it’s quite a rich and thoughtful inward journey. It’s easy to see why this piece seems to be in vogue right now among many guitarists (judging by the CDs that arrive at my desk).

Jouve followed that suite with a pair of later Rodrigo works, Junto al Generalife and the three-movement Sonata Giacosa, both interesting works that are redolent with Spanish feeling (and even perhaps containing a couple of subtle nods to his famous Aranjuez). The middle “Andante Moderato” had a lovely hymn-like quality, and the upbeat closing “Allegro” had a part that sounded like a jig morphing into a Spanish dance.

At intermission, Martha Masters announced the names of the 12 semifinalists in the International Concert Artist Competition (see who was chosen below), and they came up onstage to be photographed and given a brief orientation about the following day’s competition schedule.

The second half of Jouve’s concert was even stronger than the first, opening with a note-perfect, completely commanding version of Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco’s Capriccio Diabolico (Homage to Paganini), which really showcased what a virtuosic and passionate player Jouve is. His left hand vibrato is exquisitely musical (and at times violin-like), and the tremolo passage was flawless; he is quite a technician. His program closed with three very different pieces by his friend, composer Mathias Duplessy (b. 1973): Cavalcade is a brisk work that has echoes of the Baroque (and more tremolo); Nocturne No. 2, which Jouve says was inspired by the French impressionists, is more somber and meditative—like wandering through Paris’ Jardin des Tuileries on a grey autumn day; and “Oulan Bator” (that’s Mongolia’s capital city) provided a sensationally exciting ending, with its galloping rhythmic pulse, literally meant to conjure Mongolian horseback riders. After a long, well-earned standing ovation, Jouve returned and dedicated his encore selection to Roland Dyens, who was one of his teachers: The Moon Represents My Heart, a simple, transcendently beautiful Chinese tune Dyens arranged for guitar. This was definitely one of the very best concerts I’ve seen at GFA these past three years. I bought two of Jouve’s CDs on my way out (Rodrigo: Guitar Music 1 and Cavalcade, which is all Duplessy pieces) and floated back to my hotel in a blissful head-space. Merci, monsieur Jouve!

Semifinalists Announced!
Announced during the intermission at the Jouve concert, the 12 semifinalists (from 41 total competitors) represented ten countries: Florent Aillaud (France), Sondre Høymer (Norway), Lazhar Cherouana (France), Tengyue Zhang (China), Davide Giovanni Tomasi (Italy/Switzerland), You Wu (China), Mak Grgic (Slovenia), Alec Holcomb (USA), Andrey Lebedev (Australia), Andrea De Vitis (Italy), Bogdan Mihailescu (Romania), Valdimir Gapontsev (Russia). Obviously a talented group, but I must admit a certain disappointment that there were no women deemed worthy to make the semis; in fact only four even entered the competition. It seems as though an increasing number of girls and women are involved in classical guitar every year; perhaps someday that will be reflected more in guitar competitions in the U.S. and abroad. (For the record, I am not criticizing the judging here; merely lamenting the paucity of women in the field in general.)

Thursday started out coolish and foggy, however it wasn’t the fabled southern California “June gloom” setting in—the sun broke through mid-morning but the heatwave had broken! I attended an interesting early-morning lecture in which longtime Texas guitar teacher Bill Swick traced the history  and evolution of guitar education in America over the past five-plus decades. It was fascinating learning about how early pioneers such as Sophocles Pappas, Aaron Shearer, Mel Bay, and others (Segovia!) fostered the rise of guitar in colleges and, later, high schools in the U.S., and how the field slowly grew into more and more areas over the decades.

But I spent the majority of Thursday at the Little Theatre watching the semifinals of the competition. The required piece was considerably more to my liking than the Holmes work in the preliminary round—the first movement of Lennox Berkeley’s melodic but still challenging 1957 Sonatina for Guitar. I enjoyed hearing each player bring his own interpretation of the piece, and I never tired of it. The other pieces played by the 12 semifinalists covered a wide spectrum of pieces spanning many centuries, from Bach (always popular) to Brouwer (ditto). I won’t recount what all the guitarists played, but comment generally that each had his brilliant moments. A few of my favorite performances included Sondre Høymer’s version of Regondi’s Introduction et Caprice, Lazhar Cherouana’s take on Manjón’s Aire Vasco, Davide Giovanni Tomasi’s El Sueño de la razón (by Catelnuovo-Tedesco), Andrea de Vitis’ confident reading of Sor’s Grand Solo, and Valdimir Gapontsev’s heroic charge Castenuovo-Tedesco’s Capriccio Diabolic, still fresh in my mind from the previous night’s Jouve triumph. I will leave the ranking of these fine players to the judges, but I did want to single out the one player out of the nine I saw that seemed to be on different, higher level this particular day: Tengyue Zhang by far played the best version of the Berkeley piece, and the rest of his program was as impressive, including Sérgio Assad’s lyrical “Valseana” (from Aquarelle) and a dramatic and powerful version of Brouwer’s challenging “Danza de las diosas negra” (from Rito de los Orishas). Zhang, who won the GFA’s Senior Division Youth Competition in 2010 as a 17-year-old was the most confident and controlled player I saw, and has to be considered a favorite in the competition. But we shall see.

The Final Four Revealed!
I wrote the above comments a few hours before the four finalists were announced, during the intermission of Alvaro Pierri’s Thursday evening concert at the Little Theatre (more on that show in the next report). Your four 2017 GFA ICAC contetants are (drum roll please…): Alec Holcomb (USA), Andrey Lebedev (Australia), Andrea De Vitis (Italy), and Tengyue Zhang. Congratulations one and all! That’s a very strong field. Should be a great finals on Saturday.

Here are pix of each of the four finalists, snapped by the GFA’s ace photographer Kenneth Kam (to whom we are eternally indebted), plus a video of Tengyue Zhang last year playing one of the pieces he performed during this year’s semifinals:

Alec Holcomb (USA)

Tengyue Zhang (China)

Andrey Lebedev (Australia)

Andrea De Vitis (Italy)

Click here to read Part 1Part 3, and Part 4 of our GFA report.