BY STEVE MANN for CLASSICAL GUITAR

In China now, there are many guitar festivals, with my guitar teacher He Qing racking up enough air miles to circumnavigate the globe: Hong Kong, Changsha, Shanghai, Shenyang, Xian, Huangshan… The dates of many of these festivals overlap and competition participants and guests are often given a dichotomous choice between events. So, besides having the name of Shanghai behind it, what distinguishes this once-every-two-year extravaganza from other guitar festivals?

This year, the festival not only enjoyed sponsorship from the likes of Altamira guitars, Savarez and D’Addario strings, among others, but also investment from the Shanghai local government to the tune of one million Chinese yuan (about 150,000 U.S. dollars). As part of this government investment there are bus stop billboards advertising the festival around the city, a number of outreach events promoting the classical guitar, acoustic guitar, and ukulele in shopping malls and other venues, and a “grand finale” concert, held at the prestigious Shanghai Grand Theatre.

A big crowd at the Shanghai Grand Theatre

There was a stellar rostrum of guests on hand for the festival, including David Russell, Stephen Goss, David Starobin, and many others, as well as some of the usual representatives of Chinese conservatories: He Qing, Kenneth Kwan, Min Zhenqi, Peter Fan, and approximately 150 other teachers. The foreign guests gave concerts and master classes as well as providing an informal source of knowledge exchange between them and the hosts. The teachers from the various conservatories, universities, and schools acted as judges in the competition with the final being judged by the most well-known of them.

The concerts consisted of guitar duos, a violin/guitar duo (the Desiderio brothers), and solo performances, with music ranging from the Baroque through to contemporary composers. The music was generally focused on “accessible” works of the 19th and 20th century. There were also two free public concerts, by Thomas Patterson, Wang Yijin (last year’s open group competition winner) and others. Concerts were held in a large theater and the sound was amplified. As readers are probably aware, the use of amplification with the classical guitar can be contentious, as it is notoriously difficult to choose the correct microphones, position them and control the sound on and off stage. Although the quality of the equipment was good, I couldn’t help feeling some of the nuances of the guitar sound were lost. However, given the size of the auditorium and the fact that Chinese audiences can be a bit more rambunctious than their Western counterparts, this was probably a pragmatic solution.

The final concert was an audiovisual feast with not only world-class guitarists such as Roberto Aussel, David Russell, and other great names performing, but also performances by the competition winners and what was billed as a “miniature children’s guitar orchestra” conducted by none other than Stephen Goss. Besides the music, there were accompanying dancers and tasteful background visual effects to enhance the atmosphere. All in all, it was a vibrant way to end the festival.

Across all the competitions there were 500 competitors and there would have been more if organizers had not had to limit the number. The competition aimed to be as fair as possible, with guitarists in the preliminary rounds performing behind screens. This was so that the performers could feel more at ease, and also so that there could be no unintentional bias on behalf of the judges. For the initial rounds, there was strict discipline kept with regards to who could enter the rooms—judges and competitors only—although in later rounds audiences were allowed. For the final round of the open group there were 19 judges and the scores given by each judge were published. The discipline and fairness within the competition rooms was impressive although a small area that could be improved on was the fact that some of the sound of guitarists warming up and preparing outside did spill over. This detail, now known by organizers, will most likely be resolved in coming years.


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A room of young guitarists at the festival

Some contestants in early rounds competed behind screens

The result for this year’s open group competition:

1st place: He Zhiyuan

2nd place: Zhou Fangjun

3rd place: Zhou Jierui

I couldn’t help being impressed by the overall experience. At times it felt like being in a “guitarist factory,” at other times it was reminiscent of a conservatory around exam time. Nonetheless, and given the above imagery, it was an event that was personal and charged with emotion. With children doing last minute runs of their performances accompanied by parents and teachers in every available space, the nature of the event and the importance and enormity of the classical guitar in China were immediately apparent.

Although this year the competition was an exclusively Chinese event, organizer Min Zhenqi expressly stated, “We would love to open up the competition and to invite foreign competitors.” This will very likely happen in 2020, and for those who are curious, the prize money being offered will be around $16,000. The 2018 event was massive, but it is clear that organizers have even more ambitious plans for the next one.

Visiting performers and teachers are commonly surprised by the ability and numbers of young guitarists in China. Regular guest Stephen Goss notes that standards have improved year on year, with children of eight or nine already possessing an impressive technique. Josep Enriquez, who has been teaching guitar in China since 1992 and now lives in Shanghai, notes, “China today is possibly the country with the biggest following of the classical guitar, and without doubt is helping to establish, stabilize and ‘revive’ our instrument.” Based on what I saw at the festival I am inclined to concur.