Great Performances and Room for Improvement: A Report from China’s 6th Changsha Guitar Festival

Berta Rojas, left, was among the featured performers and teachers

By Steve Mann, photos by Leah Peng

By now, the Changsha Guitar Festival is very well established. Each year the organizers improve on the last, particularly in terms of organization and the overall quality and number of guest performers. This year’s sixth festival, held July 15–19, was no exception, although there was a significant area in need of improvement this time, and for the coming years: The open competition.

Competition Winners

1st prize: not awarded

2nd prize: not awarded

3rd prize: Julio Quimbayo (Costa Rica/Colombia)

4th prize: Alexandra Velasco (Australia)


Composition competition: Ladouce Franck (France)

Although the competition now has an outstanding infrastructure and organization, unfortunately it did not have the necessary general skill level of competitors in the “open” group. This year, neither a first, nor a second prize was given, implying that because the winners, although they gave their best, were deemed to not be of the level that warranted 10,000 U.S. dollars in prize money. This is in stark contrast with previous years where, for example, last year Yun Duan won the first prize and gave a series of concerts in China, ending at Changsha. Xuefei Yang, the artistic director of the festival, commented, “We want to keep the level of the competition high, and this year we didn’t find the ‘outstanding’ level that we were looking for. The winner has to be ready to give a series of concerts that are of a professional level. We owe it to the audiences in those concerts that the first-prize winner is at level to present our instrument in public.”

With this in mind it is important for the festival to begin to focus more on promotional aspects before the competition, and to some extent, general marketing, to attract a higher level of competitor; otherwise it may become difficult to sustain such a festival.

Guest Artists
This was the strongest element of the festival, with an impressive roster of guitarists from all over the world and many different approaches: Xuefei Yang, Weiliang Zhang (playing traditional Chinese wind instruments), Duan Yun (last year’s champion), Javier Conde (flamenco guitar), Fabio Zanon, Benjamin Verdery (commissioned to write this year’s final set piece: The rain falls equally on all things), Ekachai Jearakul (former champion of GFA), Berta Rojas, Johannes Möller, Gerald Garcia, Hans Michael Koch, the Vida Guitar Quartet—plus Leo Brouwer (not present) acting as judge of the composition competition. (Brouwer is also writing the set piece for next year’s finals.)

Xuefei Yang and Weiliang Zhang

With this lineup of musicians there were some amazing concerts, master classes and lectures. All of the concerts were of a very high standard, although of particular note, was a stronger focus on chamber music which saw Xuefei Yang accompanying the Chinese flute and other wind instruments. England’s Vida Quartet not only provided excellent music, both contemporary and older, but also added a touch of humor—moving away from a “standard” encore routine: With considerable theatricality, one of the members decided to leave before the encore, then returned half-way through the piece, only to be shunned by the other members—the audience loved it! Verdery performed Ingram Marshall’s Soepa “for electric classical guitar with digital delay and loops”—a totally unique experiences for audiences accustomed to a more traditional renditions from the classical guitar repertoire. Berta Rojas gave a soulful performance of a number of works by Barrios which were performed cleanly and passionately, reflecting a personality that is both sincere and authentic.

Vida Guitar Quartet

This is an area that has improved significantly, with concerts now being held in the newly completed Changsha Concert Hall, as opposed to the older theater used previously. This meant state-of-the-art acoustics and electronic support, with professional staff controlling the stages, practice rooms, and entrance into the complex. As with everything, the new, improved venues do have a small trade-off for those who enjoy a more informal and relaxed atmosphere, although visiting guests—guitarists and the audience—are still able to freely mix. Further, with the numerous English-speaking assistants looking after the guests, local and international attendees felt most welcome.

The organization has gotten better year on year, however there are still important areas that can be improved. Yang noted, “We would like to see more competitors from all over the world. Before, we have seen many competitors from Asia and a number of other regions of the world, and we would like to welcome even more in the future, both close to home and further away.” With this in mind, it is not hyperbole to say that if this aspect of the festival can be ironed out (resulting in more highly skilled competitors in the open group), Changsha will become one of the greatest guitar festivals in the world. Because all the other elements are already in place.

Below, in a video from a couple of years ago, festival artistic director Xuefei Yang plays her transcription of the Chinese folk tune Fisherman’s Song at Eventide: