Fampas International Guitar Competition Brings Out Strong Field in Athens

Report and Competition Photos by Paul Fowles

 Mention the name Dimitris Fampas (1921–96) and most guitarists will recall that he was the creator of the amiable and evergreen “Sousta.” This catchy Greek dance miniature, which shifts gears a minute or so from the end leading to an exhilarating conclusion, is unquestionably Fampas’ most enduring international hit. London-based Greek guitarist Eleftheria Kotzia was a key proponent of “Sousta” long before she recorded it in 1989, and Craig Ogden‘s fondness for the piece led to the 2009 recording of a version for guitar and mandolin.

Less widely known is that “Sousta” is just one part of an extensive legacy. A guitarist by trade, and one of the best known Greek players of his time, Fampas (pictured above) was a prolific composer and arranger whose catalog of works is naturally centered on his own instrument. The sheer scale was tellingly illustrated in the run-up to the present event, when the gentle rustic soundbite whose title I misheard as “Prelude Forte” turned out to be “Prelude No.40,” thus indicating there must be at least 39 more of the same out there somewhere. The efforts of Athenian guitarist Eva Fampas to keep her late father’s work in the public eye are nothing short of humbling, this newly-launched competition being the latest in a long line of projects promoted by the Guitar Friends Association “Dimitris Fampas.”  This year’s finals took place April 9–10.

The initial round took the form of videos submitted by the competitors. In addition to the obvious cost-cutting benefits, this has the advantage that jury members are able to refine their evaluations by revisiting performances as often as they wish. The downside is that, given these emerging young musicians are unlikely to be in a financial position to hire a professional studio, the video round gives little idea of what they really sound like when it comes to tone quality.

So it was that Dimitris Soukaras, whose sound-capture in the video round was arguably the worst of all, arrived on stage at the Anna and Maria Kalouta Theatre in the Athens Municipality Cultural Center to deliver a rich and rounded Mertz “Elegie” as the opening item in the live final round. Any jury member who had given Soukaras the benefit of the doubt in elevating him to the next level was proved right within the first few seconds. Elsewhere, Boyan Doychev from Bulgaria presented some robust Rodrigo and Giuliani, while Chronis Koutsoumpides, despite a rather faltering “Grande Ouverture,” ultimately shone in the last two movements from Triela by Roland Dyens. Daryan Shahab from Belarus, the only finalist whose homeland lies outside the European Union, gave a mostly secure, if somewhat cautious, performance before letting go in “Whirler of the Dance” by Carlos Rivera. Needless to say, everyone was required to play something by Dimitris Fampas and no, not everyone chose “Sousta.”


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(L to R) First prize winner Boyan Doychev, runner-up Chronis Koutsoumpides, and third place guitarist Dimitris Soukaras.

As is customary on such occasions, the last evening took the form of a public concert in which performers who had served on the international jury shared the platform with locally-based players. After some impressive offerings from two superbly-drilled youth ensembles, Eva Fampas presented a brief but rewarding program in the company of a highly able mandolin player, the closing item being—you guessed it—an arrangement of “Sousta.” Of particular interest was Italian guitarist/composer and jury member Giorgio Mirto, whose pace-setting recording of the works of Maximo Diego Pujol I had the pleasure of reviewing for Classical Guitar back in September 2010. Pleasingly, Mirto included one item by Pujol mixed in with his own compositions, before closing his set with an enthusiastically-received cycle of songs in the company of the charismatic singer Celeste Gugliandolo. Due in no small measure to the skills of those in charge of stage management, there was only a brief hiatus before the orchestral finale, culminating in Rodrigo’s Concierto Andaluz, for which one of the four guitarists was none other than Eva Fampas.

Before all this, the results of the competition were announced. Most would agree it had been a closely-matched final, but with three likely front runners. Opinions were divided as to who should take the honors, but a decision was finally reached that Dimitris Soukaras should be placed third, Chronis Koutsoumpides second, and Boyan Doychev the overall victor. All three presented a “lap of honor” (or “victory lap” as they say in the US) in the form of selected material from their competition program, and all seemed happy with the outcome when I caught up with them later for an informal chat and the inevitable celebratory photographs.

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Italian guitarist and jury member Giorgio Mirto performed a fine set that included a song cycle sung by Celeste Gugliandolo.

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Here’s a bonus video from 2011 of Dimitris Fampas’ highly skilled guitar-playing daughter Eva playing a few of her father’s compositions, including “Sousta,” which starts around the 9:40 mark; a truly wonderful piece!