GFA Report #1: Brouwer, Thu Le, Baroque Guitar, and 12 Semifinalists Announced

Lasy year's GFA winner, Tengyue Zhang, in a master class with Leo Brouwer. Photo: Martha Masters/GFA


Greetings from the University of Louisville (Kentucky) School of Music, where this year’s Guitar Foundation of America (GFA) conference and competition is taking place! Hosted by Dr. Stephen Mattingly, Associate Professor of Guitar at the university, the GFA is once again a smoothly run, wonderfully international event showcasing some of the best players in the world.

I will spare you the horrific details of my travel day from the SF Bay Area to Louisville yesterday (Tuesday). Suffice it to say that I missed Tuesday’s concert with Joaquín Clerch, whose program of three major works by Leo Brouwer (and several other pieces) was one I really hoped to see, and that I checked into my room long after midnight. Forgive me if I fall asleep in mid-sentence.

Actually, I’m feeling revived and refreshed after a day full of concerts at the beautiful and sonically marvelous Comstock Hall, however I pledge to keep these reports brief. But first, the news from Tuesday evening: The announcement of the 12 semifinalists in the ICAC (International Concert Artist Competition). It’s a very strong field (including five women; yay!), with many names  no doubt familiar to those of you who follow the competition scene worldwide: Giulia Ballare (Italy), Thierry Bégin-Lamontagne (Canada), Bokyung Byun (South Korea; she just won the JoAnn Falletta Concerto Competition); Steve Cowan (Canada), Raphaël Feuillatre (France), Pauline Gauthey (France), Sondre Høymer (Norway); Ami Inoi (Japan), Andrey Lebedev (Australia), Ji Hyung Park (South Korea), Marko Topchii (Ukraine), and Hao Yang (China). Congratulations to all of you! I’m looking forward to seeing the entire semifinal round.

Back to the concerts. The lunchtime double bill there featured two outstanding performances. I was really knocked out by Vietnamese guitarist Thu Le (I’ve posted a couple of her videos in the past year but had never seen her perform), who presented a marvelously diverse program I’ve nicknamed “Around the World with Thu Le.” Her fluid virtuosity was very much on display as she took on Luigi Legnani’s extremely challenging Fantasia, Op. 19; her delicate and nuanced command was on display on a fantastic piece called Loi Lo, based on a traditional Vietnamese folk song (it sounded like it was being played on native Vietnamese instruments in parts, including the sumptuous tremolo sections); Dušan Bagdanovic’s appropriately titled Six Balkan Miniatures; a fine modern waltz from French composer Laurent Boutros and an older one by Chopin (arr. Dyens); plus Dyens’ arrengement of Jobim’s Felicidade—loose and sensual—and an encore performance of Malats’ much-played (but always delightful) Serenata Española. A great performance by a very evocative player.


The second part of the midday concert was a stimulating set by Duo46—guitarist Matthew Gould and violinist Beth Ilana Schneider-Gould, who have been playing together since 1994, so they are amazingly in-sync. Their program included six short selections from Jorge Liderman’s Aires de Sefarad II, which are steeped in the Sefardic musical tradition—perfect for the violin-guitar combination—and bearing such intriguing titles as Three Sisters, What I See Is What I Want, and My Brothers Listen. The other piece that intrigued me was John Oliver’s On Freedom, which found the duo playing with/against a complex recorded sound collage dominated by fragments of speeches by the likes of presidents Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, and George W. Bush talking about war, along with sound effects, electronically altered speech; it was quite the pastiche. Much of it was hard to understand and therefore a bit confusing, especially if one was concentrating on the violin and guitar music, which ran a stylistic gamut and was, of course, well-played. There was even a period of about a minute or more when the musicians held their instruments up to cover their faces (hiding from war?). Strange but effective. Overall I found it quite haunting, and it lingered in my mind the rest of the day.

For me, however, the highlight of Wednesday was getting to see Leo Brouwer’s master class, which drew a large and enthusiastic crowd to Comstock Hall. The maestro shared his wisdom about three of his works with the last two GFA winners—Xavier Jara (Sonata del caminante) and Tengyue Zhang (Rito de los orishas)—and with the duo of Connie Sheu and Adam Petit (Sonata de los viajeros). Brouwer was way into it as he followed his score: smiling broadly, nodding, conducting, playing “air guitar,” keeping time with every appendage. Then, his comments to the players were fascinating and so entertaining. He’d zero in on specific moments in the score and make extremely subtle suggestions—try accenting this note differently, change the emphasis of a line this way, try adding a short breath here—punctuated with a multitude of profound and often funny asides in which he quoted Schubert, complimented Lady Gaga and Sting, talked about artist Paul Klee, mimed shooting a “predictable” musician, and told stories about his own youth. He was extremely complimentary to the musicians (and deservedly so; he kept saying Zhang’s interpretation was “perfecto“) and genuinely seemed to be thrilled to hear his pieces played with so much skill and character. After the class (which also included a brief audience Q&A he spent the next hour signing one sheet music book after another for a long line of admirers who all but wiped out the large stock of music that were on offer.

The maestro with Xavier Jara. Photo: Martha Masters/GFA
Working with Connie Sheu and Adam Petit. Photo: Martha Masters/GFA

Later in the afternoon, guitarist and lutenist Xavier Díaz-Latorre played a spellbinding hour of late 17th and early 18th century Spanish music by Gaspar Sanz, Francisco Guerau, and Santiago de Murcia, played on a Baroque guitar. Every time I see one of these concerts I marvel at how the music seamlessly blends lush chording, fluttering strums (what a supple wrist is required!), and smooth but dazzling fleet-fingered runs. It’s roots are in folk music, yet it is also informed by some of the intricate voicing of the the Baroque era. It is unmistakably Spanish, and in one of the Sanz pieces (Xácara), I felt like I was hearing the roots of flamenco music more than 200 years before the style was invented. The crowd hung on every note, every graceful ornament and rich strum, and rewarded Diaz-Latorre with two extended standing ovations.

Next: Amadeus Duo, the semifinals, and more.

Click here to read our other Reports from GFA: #2, #3, #4 and #5.