Thursday night at GFA, the showcase concert featured formed GFA winner (1995) Antigoni Goni, the magnificent Greek guitarist who has lived in the Belgium for many years, teaches at the Royal Conservatory in Brussels, and also spearheads the groundbreaking Volterra Project guitar program each summer in Tuscany. Perhaps you saw her on the cover of the Spring 2018 issue of Classical Guitar. If you missed it, here’s a link to that story. Goni’s appearance at this year’s GFA, her first in a number of years, was greatly anticipated and drew a large and enthusiastic crowd.
In an interesting move, she eschewed the traditional headlining concert structure of two sets separated by an intermission, instead opting to play one long set. I liked that—it seems like it brought an added continuity and flow to the well-structured program. Most of her concerts these days are built around her most recent album, Hymn to the Muse, which explores her Greek roots, Greek music, and music inspired by Greece. In fact the two largest pieces she performed at Comstock Hall weren’t written by Greeks at all, but by Serbian Dušan Bogdanovic (the title suite from the album) and Bulgarian Atanas Ourkouzounov (Four Greek Miniatures); both countries are near Greece and share some similar musical influences. Goni explained the origins of each piece she played and offered some historical context in terms of her own musical evolution. Two of the highlights from the Greek portion of the show, which dominated, were Manos Hadjidakas’ transcendently beautiful Giacoinda’s smile and two Mikis Theodorakis’ Epitfios.
She was equally brilliant on some Latin/Spanish pieces, including a relatively obscure Tárrega work called Endecha y Oremus, and Jose Luis Merlin’s nicely varied, five-part Suite del Recuerdo. Appropriately at this conference which is celebrating Leo Brouwer, her encore selection was a heart-rending version of the exquisite Un Dia de Noviembre. Unfortunately, Goni had to battle a problematic guitar string for the entire night, so there was a lot of momentum-killing tuning throughout, but pro that she is she moved past it to play sublimely.
The Friday lunchtime concert was another winner from beginning to end, featuring 45-minute sets by Rovshan Mamedkuliev and the New Zealand Guitar Quartet—you’d be hard-pressed to find two more divergent artists. Mamedkuliev entered my personal pantheon of the greatest living guitarists when I saw him play at La Guitarra California last year, and this magnificent set, featuring just two longer works (plus another Brouwer/Dia encore—always welcome!) reconfirmed that opinion. He is absolutely at the top level of players; a genius interpreter with a commanding and engaging personality. His opening version of the complete Five Bagatelles by William Walton showed the full range of that marvelous pieces many layers, but the real revelation was the second-ever U.S. performance of Nikita Koshkin’s Sonata No. 2. Though it’s overall structure is classical (with “Allegro moderato,” “Adagio–con moto,” and “Allegro” movements) and there are even some traditional touches here and there, including a repeating tremolo passage in the first movement, it’s still a fully modern piece, with dissonances, stop-start rhythmic blasts, and a dramatic and exciting coda. I really loved it and would love to see Mamedkuliev make a recording it. I can also picture the first movement, particularly, turning up in the programs of ambitious young guitarists. This one is a keeper.
I’ve been a fan of the New Zealand Guitar Quartet for a few years now, but this was my first time seeing them perform, and it was quite an eye-opening experience. The first album I heard by them seemed to put them in the same bag as the LAGQ (not surprising given the fact that some of them studied with Bill Kanengiser, and they are still close; he was there at the show) in terms of approach and repertoire. But as the group has developed, they’ve taken an increasingly independent path, and at GFA we were treated to a highly adventurous program that included three contemporary works written for the quartet, and another modern piece arranged by group member Owen Moriarty. (The other three guitarists are Jane Curry, John Couch, and Vladimir Gorbach.) NZGQ warhorses by Bizet, Bach, and Rimsky-Korsakov were banished on this afternoon; instead there were intriguing sonic explorations that found the members employing spoons, and glass and metal slides on a series of works that sometimes thrummed intensely like a hive of insects, other times humorously broke down into bizarre bloops and bleeps. One of the members described a piece as “approachable and left-field,” which pretty much says it all.The opener, The Passing of a Black Star, inspired by and containing fragments of David Bowie’s music, was their lone concession to commercialism.
The Friday afternoon concert featured Australia’s Grigoryan Brothers duo and they, too, triumphed many thousand miles from home. The brothers, who are nine years apart in age (Slava is older, Leonard younger) clearly have that special brotherly telepathy thing going on, and that translates to remarkable musical communication—also honed through decades of playing together, of course! (A family bond will take you only so far.) Their program was the classic “mixed recital,” with pieces from many different epochs and genres, a couple sounding like temporal mashups: Slava’s opening Fantasy on a Theme by William Lawes combines a melody from the Elizabethan Lawes with what sounded almost like improvised jamming; and the Tchaikovsky “song” that followed, “None But the Lonely Heart,” had a cool, jazzy feeling. They played it straight with the lovely Bach “Arioso” from Cantata BWV 156, and Debussy’s Clair de Lune—surely among the most reliable pieces performed commonly by guitar duos; it could not have been more tender and evocative. They played some de Falla and Gnattali (the flashy “Chiquinha Gonzaga” movement of Suite Retratos), and one work that was new to me that I really liked: Songs from the Forest, written by modern Australian composer Nigel Westlake for the (long defunct) duo of Aussies Tim Kain and John Williams. Their encore was a spectacularly joyful and explosive version of Paolo Bellinati’s Jongo, capped by a long, intricate solo “guitar percussion” segment that was amazingly well coordinated. The Brothers certainly lived up to their sterling reputation as one of the better duos out there.