by Steve Mann, photos by Houjiu Song.

This year there have been many guitar festivals in China besides the two “regular” events—Shenyang and Changsha. I would like readers to consider this question: In a world where there are so many guitar festivals and competitions, with at least five different ones in China this year alone, how does “another” guitar festival stand out from the rest?

The Concerts

The underlying theme of last year’s festival was “new music”; this year it was extended further to include areas that are not part of the “mainstream” classical guitar in China, including the eight-string “Brahms guitar,” lute, a performance with a string quartet, and a Flamenco spectacle. There were evening concerts given by internationally known performers:

Festival artistic director Xuefei Yang performed a mixture of Bach pieces accompanied by a string quartet, as well as works from her new album Colours of Brazil. Unlike previous concerts however, there were no Chinese pieces on her program.

Zoran Dukic performed pieces by 20th century Spanish composers in the first half of his program and then, interestingly, alternated four Bach pieces with three by Astor Piazzolla—deliberately contrasting Baroque control with the exuberance of the 20th century. Dukic covered a variety of different styles and won over the audience with his passionate playing and exuberant personality.

The third night was highlighted by an eight-string “Brahms guitar” concert, performed by Paul Galbraith, the instrument’s inventor. His upright cello-manner of playing was surprising to audiences accustomed to regular classical guitar performances. Many of the audience had never heard such a guitar, let alone seen one played before their eyes. Galbraith played works by Scriabin, Mozart, Bach, and Albéniz, again covering a wide variety of musical styles and showing that his unusual technique was not only suitable for the “standard repertoire,” but also helped him to expand it and interpret pieces in new ways.

Paul Galbraith master class

Paul Galbraith master class

Nigel North further extended the repertoire down to the late Renaissance, performing works by Francesco da Milano and John Dowland on the lute. Although the lute is sometimes heard in the larger cities in China, it is rare to hear it in a provincial city such as Changsha (which is, incidentally, still larger than most European capitals).

Composer/guitar lecturer Nejc Kuhar performed his own contemporary pieces, including the winning piece from last year’s Changsha festival composition competition—Nocturnal and Presto—interspersed with musical styles ranging from the Baroque to the late Romantic period. His own pieces made use of exotic harmonies, contrasts in mood, and alternative playing methods such as string slaps and knocks. When his concert was followed by North’s, the music heard in a single day at the festival extended over a period of about 500 years!

The final concert, again somewhat unusual for China, was a flamenco trio consisting of a male and female dancer (Ivan Garcia/Susana Garcia) accompanied by a guitarist/singer (Antonio Mata). Various palos were performed including bulerias, alegrias, and the Fandango de Huelva. Judging by the rapturous applause between canciones, it was clear the audience loved the spectacle, with the visual element of the dances adding exoticism and further excitement to the end of the festival.

Besides the evening concerts, there were also daily programs given by past open group competition champions Sanel Redzic, Tengyue Zhang, and Junhong Kuang. They performed works by well known composers all to a professional standard, with their previous multi-city tours of China obviously providing them with good experience. Although new to the guitar world, their names will certainly be heard in the future.

The festival was rounded out with the additional lectures on the lute, how to study and practice the guitar, and on the guitarist/composer Fernando Sor, given by Nigel North and professors Zhenming Guan (Xianghai Conservatory) and Qing He (Tianjin Conservatory) respectively. There were also master classes by Xuefei Yang, Paul Galbraith, Sanel Redžic (pictured at top), and others.

The Competition

There were five guitar performance competitions and one composition competition: An Open Group (all ages), Youth Group (14–20), Juvenile Group (11–14), Children’s “A” Group (9–11), and Children’s “B” group, each with its own repertoire requirements, as well as free choice. The final compulsory piece for the open group was Alberto Ginastera’s Sonata, Op. 47.

It is an often-heard cliché that “everybody performed wonderfully,” and it is certainly true that there was a very high level of skill and effort put into the performances. For the Open Group and Youth Group competitions there were, broadly speaking, two tiers of performers: Those who clearly had talent and began their set well, but after the first inevitable mistake, would seem to lose their composure; and those who seemed to thrive off the experience of performing. In last year’s festival, Zhenqi Min (Shanghai Conservatory) stated that, particularly with the older groups, there is a marked difference between those that study at conservatories and those who do not. This difference is understandable, given that conservatory students regularly have to perform to a group of teachers that assess them, are surrounded by a musical environment, and have access to master classes from visiting guitarists, something that the hobbyist has generally less chance of experiencing.

The top three winners of the Open Group this year were Yun Duan (Tianjin Conservatory of Music), 1st place; You Wu (Vienna Academy of Music), 2nd place; and Nicola Montella (Italy), 3rd place. The winner, 17-year-old Yun Duan, received $10,000 as a cash prize and a guitar worth $6,500. Besides this he will also give six concerts in different Chinese cities. The winner of the youth group, Yingjian Hu, received 8,000 rmb (Chinese Yuan) in cash (about $1,200) and a guitar worth 26,000 rmb (about $4,000).

Winner Duan Yun (L) with He Qing

Winner Duan Yun (L) with He Qing

Some Last Thoughts 

After the success of last year’s festival, which featured guests such as Roland Dyens, Jason Vieaux, and others, the bar was set very high for this year. The organizers still invested in bringing heavyweights of the guitar world to Changsha, while slightly broadening the scope of the festival. As Yang stated, “I thought this would open the ears of the festival audience to new possibilities. I personally also like to see the guitar as part of the wider musical world.”

Changsha is a great festival, with excellent guest guitarists guests, interesting events, a wonderful atmosphere, and organizational experience that is improving year on year. There are, however, areas which can still be improved. One of the reasons it is not like the annual Guitar Foundation of America (GFA) event is that there are not so many foreigners (i.e. non-Chinese) taking part in the competition. They are present, but their numbers could be increased, especially considering the near-absence of guests from neighbouring countries such as Japan, Korea, Australia, and around Southeast Asia. If it wants to compete with GFA, it needs to attract more international participants.

Besides attracting more international visitors, the festival organizers might consider a different venue, due to the increasing popularity of the event. Further, other areas that could be considered include expanding the composition competition to have two or three prizes; promoting the festival more outside of China; and perhaps including more chamber works for the guitar and other instruments—although the latter may be a moot point, as Yang this year included a string quartet for part of her opening concert.

Artistic director Xuefei Yang (center) with various players and judges

Artistic director Xuefei Yang (center) with various players and judges

Waiting to play in the competition

Waiting to play in the competition