By Blair Jackson

The final day (June 24) of this year’s GFA in Fullerton, California, turned out to be quite a day for the Chinese: Tengyue Zhang, who was so impressive in every round of the International Concert Artist Competition (ICAC), managed to take first place in what everyone agrees was a dynamite field of wonderful players. He won over the judges with a sterling rendition of the Bach Chaconne, a bold choice for sure. The great Sharon Isbin celebrated his achievement on Facebook: “Bravo to my brilliant student Tengyue Zhang for your 1st Prize win tonight at the Guitar Foundation of America (GFA) International Competition! It’s a joy to teach you at The Juilliard School these last 5 years, & previously at the Aspen Music Festival and School! You played magnificently at GFA 2017, like a true & deep artist, w/ courage, dedication, beautiful musicianship & stunning virtuosity, all in the service of the music. Your 50-concert winner’s tour awaits!”

Coming in second was Andrea De Vitis of Italy, third was Alec Holcomb of the U.S., and fourth was Australia’s Andrey Lebedev; congratulations one and all!

The Fantastic Four are honored: (Lto R) Andrey Lebedev, Alec Holcomb, Andrea De Vitis, and grand winner Tengyue Zhang. Photo: Kenneth Kam for GFA

A Chinese guitarist also won the top slot in the Senior Division of the Youth Competition: Shilong Fan. Alberto Daniel Quintanilla of Mexico placed second, Xu Kun Liu of Canada, was third, and Yun Duan of China, fourth.

In the Junior Division of the Youth Competition the order of placement was 1: Leonora Spangenberger (Germany), 2: Gwenyth Aggeler (USA); 3: Eric Wang (USA); 4: Marc Saura (USA)

This was the first year for the GFA’s International Ensemble Competition (a great idea!) and the results were as follows: Large Ensemble Artist Division: Octeto Sicarú (1), The Green Room Arts Senior (2); Small Ensemble Artist Division: Erlendis Quartet (1), Vickers Bovey Duo (2), Ziggy and Miles Johnston (3); Large Ensemble Youth Division: Austin Bella Corda (1); California Conservatory of Guitar (2), The Green Room Arts Youth (3); Small Ensemble Youth Division: Felice Guitar Quartet (1), Davidson Duo (2), Pasadena Conservatory (3)

The big news out of the way, let’s go back in time to the previous day (June 23) and talk a bit about the concluding regular concert at the Little Theatre on Friday night.

Solo Duo Shines Brightly with Scarlatti, Beethoven, et al
Solo Duo—Italians Matteo Mela and Lorenzo Mecheli—have built a sterling reputation through the years, so their appearance at GFA was greatly anticipated; indeed they were the only performers I saw who were greeted by whoops, whistles, and raucous cheers. It didn’t take long for them to demonstrate why they are so revered. During the short opening Scarlatti pieces, the pair effortlessly traded lines and roles (melody, counterpoint, “bass” accompaniment),back and forth, fluidly, perfectly in sync. This is the joy of watching a great duo—plugging into to that truly telepathic communication between the players. And speaking of great duos, one of the highlights of the first half of Solo Duo’s program was a flawless and exciting take on Rodrigo’s Tonadilla, written in 1959 for the legendary Presti-Lagoya Duo (Ida Presti died 50 years ago this past spring).

After the intermission, the duo came back and performed two large pieces, both exceptional, stylistically variegated, and well-known pieces from the classical piano canon: Debussy’s gorgeous Suite Bergmasque, the third movement of which is the sublime “Clair de lune” (often played alone, solo and in duos, by classical guitarists); and what may well have been my favorite performance of the four days’ worth of music I saw at GFA: Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 14, “Quasi una fantasia,” Op. 27 No. 2, popularly known at the “Moonlight Sonata.” The first movement (“Adagio sostenuto”) is among the most well-known themes in western music, yet it felt completely fresh and was exquisitely nuanced in Solo Duo’s rendering. But the final “Presto agitato” is where the fireworks really occur in this piece—it’s powerful, driving, and propulsive, with a number of fortissimo passages and bursts of notes that require intricate fingering, but Solo Duo charged through it with utter confidence and command. It was breathtaking! Solo Duo’s encore selection was a surprise (at least to me): a lovely work played on Theorbo and Baroque guitar.

Giving Howard Heitmeyer His Due
Alas, my time at this year’s GFA had to end around midday on Saturday (June 24) because of some family obligations back home in Northern California. But I made a point of going to see the early morning lecture by Rico Stover—Barrios scholar, Latin guitar specialist, longtime writer for the previous incarnation of Classical Guitar, Soundboard, etc., and creator of the popular Riconails artificial nails. He presented a fascinating talk and demonstration about the largely unsung arranger/composer/guitarist Howard Heitmeyer. The southern California-based Heitmeyer, soon to turn 94 (!), has created well over 600 arrangements of songs of every variety—pop, jazz standards, Brazilian, classical works, etc.—many of which are still widely played.

Part of Stover’s thesis is that Heitmeyer’s “classi-pop” arrangements have made all sorts of pieces more accessible—”playable” was his word—to guitarists, and that has helped an untold number of players improve their commercial prospects. Stover played parts of some of Heitmeyer’s notable arrangements (such as “The Girl from Ipanema”) and also had a pair of other guitarists on hand—Ron Freshman and Jordan Charnofsky—to tackle such tunes as “A Man and a Woman” and “Send in the Clowns.” Heitmeyer was there, too, spry and incredibly lucid for a man his age; he chimed in often with memories and and even some details about how he approached arrangement specifics. Look for more on this remarkable gentleman in a future issue of Classical Guitar!

Howard Heitmeyer (L) and Rico Stover

Some Final Thoughts on GFA
By every standard—organization, attendance, quality of music in the competitions and concerts—this year’s convention was a huge success! My greatest regret is that I could not clone myself and attend every workshop, concert, and competition round, so my reporting is woefully inadequate and incomplete. One person can’t do it all, so you make choices and live with those. Next year: Louisville, Kentucky!

As I noted in my first report, I regret missing last year’s winner, Xavier Jara, and also concerts by Cuban native Rene Izquierdo, the Pasieczny/Stanikowski Duo Project, Trio Con Brio, the superb Belgian guitarist/composer Jan Depreter, and the Guitar Orchestra conducted by Zoran Dukic (Bolero!). Here, at least, are Kenneth Kam’s excellent photos of a few of these excellent artists (and you can see many more in albums on his Facebook page:

Rene Izquierdo

Jan Depreter fought through illness to deliver a fine set

Trio Con Brio (L to R): Lydia Bach, Christina Singer, and Andrea Förderreuther

The ol’ four-hands number from Duo Siqueira Lima

And as a final musical morsel, here’s Jan Depreter in 2015 playing his beautiful composition Northern Lights, which concluded his program at GFA this year:

Click here to read Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3 of our GFA report.