BY BLAIR JACKSON

Circumstances had me flying home from Louisville back to the San Francisco Bay Area (I live in Oakland) on the morning of the finals of the GFA’s International Concert Artist Competition, the most prestigious annual contest in U.S. It was tough missing those finals, because after being there for the entire dazzling semifinal round, I knew we were in for some spectacular guitar artistry. My one hope was that if all my travel connections went smoothly—that my plane-change in Denver was problem-free (unlike my trip to Louisville earlier in the week, which was delayed seven hours in Chicago!)—perhaps I would get home in time to watch the livestream of the finals on the GFA’s Facebook page. And I did! Yay! Having spent most of several days in Comstock Hall at the University of Louisville’s School of Music, it was easy for me to watch in my living room, my big loudspeakers cranked up fairly loud, and get into the headspace of being in that room with a receptive crowd (which we unfortunately never saw on the single-camera, stage-focused stream). I thought the audio for the webcast was amazingly strong and clear (less so during the later speeches); indeed, for better or worse, I think the nuances of the playing—including the rare mis-plucked note and occasional squeaks—were more prominent on the webcast than in the hall itself. Which is not to suggest that being in the hall was anything other than completely magical—in person you can almost see the music floating and dancing gracefully through the venue, feel the audience hanging on every note, breathing as one, entering into the music with the guitarist. Nothing beats experiencing a great live performance! Still, a big thank you to the GFA and sponsor Augustine Strings for the exceptional video feed!

Going into the finals, my personal picks from the semifinals included two of the four eventual choices: Korean Bokyung Byun and Frenchman Raphaël Feuillatre. (For what’s worth my other two favorites were Marko Topchii from Ukraine and Steve Cowan from Canada, with Australian Andrey Lebedev a strong fifth choice.) On a visceral level, I felt I connected most with Feuillatre during the semis—and his finals performance, highlighted by his own splendid arrangement of Enrique Granados’ 8 Poetic Waltzes (which were new to me) and his countryman Roland Dyens’ lively and exciting Clown Down (Gismonti au cirque)—swept me away similarly. He is a remarkably expressive and emotional player, but frankly I wondered if his program was “clean” enough, technically speaking, to give him the win I thought he might deserve. Then came Bokyung’s confident  and quite extraordinary rendition of Britten’s notoriously difficult Nocturnal After John Dowland, and though I am certainly no authority on that piece, I felt she truly brought out the depth of its many tonal colors and shadings, especially the shifting dynamics of that insistent, repeating seven-note motif at its midpoint, and that section’s contrast with the achingly beautiful melodic close. As I sat in stunned silence in my living room after that performance, I thought Bokyung was probably the one to beat, and her assured versions of the finals set-piece—Brouwer’s wonderfully adventurous La Gran Sarabanda—and Ginastera’s challenging Sonata Op. 47, did nothing to dissuade me from that opinion.

Andrey Lebedev was outstanding during his concluding program, as well—serving up a solid and heartfelt (if not transformative) Chaconne—and there was also much to enjoy in the opening salvo from China’s Hao Yang, at 18 the youngest competitor in the competition; no doubt we will be seeing her again in future years. She is seriously skilled at playing both Classical and modern repertoire, as she showed in both the semis and the finals!

Bokyung Byun at the finals. Photo: Kenneth Kam/GFA

Andrey Lebedev at the finals. Photo: Kenneth Kam/GFA


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Hao Yang at the finals. Photo: Kenneth Kam/GFA

The night before the finals, another of the undisputed highlights of the week-long convention was the much anticipated concert by David Russell who, along with Leo Brouwer, was also presented with a GFA Hall of Fame Award in a special presentation right after the finals competition. (Russell also presided over a master class the day before his concert.) Few would argue that Russell is among the top living guitarists, and that no doubt contributed to his drawing a packed and adoring house to his Friday night concert—many in the crowd were “civilians” not connected at all to the GFA convention, eager to see this modern master.

And he didn’t disappoint. The relaxed and genial guitarist played an extraordinary program that barely even brushed up against the 20th century—sensational readings of a full suite by Weiss; Three Sinfonias by Bach; “A Selection of Old Celtic Music” (three pairings of ageless, mournful Scottish ballads with brisk old Irish dances; an exception was the late, modern, English composer Peter Maxwell Davies’ lovely Farewell to Stromness in the Scottish slot for the third pair); and a really attractive and compelling eight-part suite by Stephen Goss called Cantigas de Santiago which was “contemporary” in the sense that Goss is still with us, but based largely on music from  the Middle Ages. Goss and Russell both expounded on the origins of the piece and its historical influences; it’s always nice to hear the context of an unfamiiliar work. It completely captivated the audience before the intermission, drawing loud cheers and sustained applause.

I got the sense that the audience would have been quite content to stay all night listening to this consummate guitarist play, but we settled for two encores: Barrios’ gorgeous tremolo workout Una limosna por el amor de Dios, and then, after the crowd simply would not leave, a mind-blowing excursion through Tárrega’s fabulously extravagant and virtuosic Gran Jota, which in Russell’s hands was just an easy stroll in the park he dispatched utter confidence and elan. I felt so fortunate to be there to see him!

David Russell. Photo: Kenneth Kam/GFA

Composer Steve Goss (L) and David Russell before the playing of ‘Cantigas de Santiago.’ Photo: Kenneth Kam/GFA

Tomorrow: Junior and Senior Division competition results, and some final thoughts on GFA 2018.