Kanengiser, Tolonen, and a Lute (Oh My)! Report from GFA, Pt. 1

Bill Kanengiser at GFA. Photo: Kenneth Kam for GFA

By Blair Jackson

Greetings from the GFA convention in toasty Fullerton (Orange County), California! The six-day event, which is being held on the very-modern campus of California State University Fullerton (home of the “Titans,” who were, sadly, eliminated from the prestigious College World Series baseball tournament the day GFA started), and was already in full-swing when I arrived on Tuesday afternoon. I was sorry to miss the opening night concert by last year’s GFA winner Xavier Jara. It was hotter than Hades as I panted my way across the broiling campus, but who should be standing out in the heat greeting stragglers like me and generally looking like he didn’t have a care in the world, but Andrew York, who, along with Martha Masters, are “hosts” for this year’s confab. As southern Californians, they’re used to the heat. We northern Californians are famous for being weather wimps; guilty as charged!.

Be that as it may, after getting my badge, I scoped out the maze of rooms in the university’s sprawling Clayes Performing Arts Center, where there was a luthier/guitar products expo in three separate rooms, lecture halls, and a couple of different recital/performance spaces serving the guitar competitions and the many concerts. My first stop was the Tuesday afternoon round of the preliminaries in the recital hall. As always, the general level of playing was impressively high. This year’s required specially commissioned piece was a rather abstract,dissonant, and demanding (for both listener and guitarist) work by Jeffrey Holmes called Herjan. Personally I find it very difficult to evaluate whether this kind of piece is played “well,” but after hearing it half a dozen times, I think I had some handle on it, and the players who seemed strongest throughout their programs were also the ones who performed the Holmes piece with the greatest confidence. Of the players I saw that afternoon, I was most impressed with Ami Inoi of Japan and Bogdan Mihailescu of Bulgaria, but I don’t get a vote (luckily for everyone!). As I write this I have no idea who will be playing in the semi-finals on Thursday.

(One side note: This was the first time I’d seen a competitor abruptly stop his own performance: After trying to find his footing, so to speak, several times, he meekly said, “I can’t…” and left the stage. It was heartbreaking to see, because we all know how much goes into preparing for a competition like this, only to have it, apparently, fall apart because of nerves. He left the stage to compassionate applause from everyone there. I hope he makes it back to the stage another day!)

Not too exciting from the outside, but the music was great inside.

Around the World with Bill Kanengiser
As one of the main movers-and-shakers in the southern California classical guitar scene (co-founder of the Los Angeles Guitar Quartet; associate professor of guitar at USC; board member of the GFA, etc.) William Kanengiser found himself in a very friendly “home” environment at his wonderful and very well-attended Tuesday night concert at the Little Theatre. Talk about eclectic: The first half consisted of Turina’s Fantasia (Sevillana), Sor’s incredibly moving and beautiful Fantasie Elegiaque, Op. 59 (my personal highlight of the evening), Handel’s jaunty Suite No. 11 in D minor, and Ernesto Garcia de León’s appealing three-part Sonata No. 1 ‘Las Campanas.’

The music after the intermission was like a world tour: Bogdanovic’s Three African Sketches included a movement in which Kanengiser’s “prepared” guitar (staples on the strings near the bridge?) had a rattly metal sound like a mbira (he said “kora,” but it was less like that sound to me); the seven-part The Barber of Baghdad (based on a story from 1001 Arabian Nights) took us to Persia and other parts of the Middle East; and Dror Yikro has its origin in storied Jewish culture. After performing Bryan Johanson’s aptly named Magic Serenade, he closed with two pieces from Sketches for Friends by composer/GFA artistic director Brian Head, the second of which, Brookland Boogie, is based around the memorable main riff of Miles Davis’ So What; very cool! What a fun and engaging program!

Below, Kanengiser plays Three African Sketches a while back.


Waltzing with Wiedemann
As a relative novice in the classical guitar world, I’m continually getting my mind blown by guitarists I’ve never heard of. Case in point, Augustin Wiedemann, a German player, who opened a great two-artist concert on Wednesday morning at the Little Theatre. He has an impressive background but was new to me, so I was frankly astonished at how strong  he was on a tremendously varied and inspiring program that included four waltzes (or, more accurately, pieces that had waltz elements; a couple could actually hurt themselves trying to waltz to parts of all four!): Barrios’ gorgeous classic Vals Op. 8, a deeply affecting piece by Eduardo Sainz de la Maza called Homenaje a Toulouse-Lautrec; and two by the late Roland Dyens, Tristemusette (dedicated to a friend of Dyens’ who died in a plane crash, Wiedemann explained) and Valse en skai. Wiedemann, who was making his first appearance in the U.S. in 20 years, closed with Bogdanovic’s Jazz Sonata–which isn’t all that jazzy (though I could almost picture Bill Evans playing the “Lento”)–but is nonetheless a fantastic piece or writing. I love the way the concluding “Allegro molto” manages to sound simultaneously Irish and Spanish! I’m definitely intrigued by Wiedemann and plan to seek out his CDs.

Taking Chances with Tolonen
OK, you have to give some props to Finnish guitarist Otto Tolonen (that’s him at the top of the page) for having the courage to start his half of the concert that also featured  Wiedemann with the notoriously difficult-to-decipher Gloucester “character sketch” from Hans Werner Henze’s Royal Winter Music. With its abrupt, jerky, patchwork of seemingly random musical elements (I know they’re not), this is not a piece that draws an audience to its metaphorical bosom. Yet Tolonen (who has recorded the entire suite on an album favorably reviewed in Classical Guitar) managed to highlight and exploit the many unusual rhythmic shifts and contrasting dynamics to create a performance that was quite powerful, if still largely unsettling (to me, at least). And speaking of contrasts, the following Royal Winter Music excerpt, the more melodic and ethereal Ariel, was like a soothing balm by comparison. Tolonen then completely won me over with the “old school” classical of Regondi’s Rêverie–Nocturne, which includes a lot of serious tremolo work (perfectly executed) that sounded at once Spanish and Italian.

Otto Tolonen in action

Then it was back to the modern with a bizarre piece by the contemporary Italian composer Alvaro Company, called Las Seis Cuerdas (The Six Strings), written in 1963. Tolonen himself warned that the piece was “extremely experimental” and explained that Company included detailed notation on the angle of the nail in some parts, the exact spots to hit the guitar in some percussive passages so exactly the right timbre is produced, where on the strings certain notes should be plucked, etc.  The seven short movements definitely delivered the promised experimentation, and it was engrossing in its oddness. Again, Tolonen was so committed to the piece, I was able to transcend my conservative aesthetics and just go with it completely. Still, I was a happy man when Tolonen completed his program with a lovely and tremendously well-played version of a piece I adore, Piazzolla’s Invierno Porteño. And I eagerly joined the standing ovation that Tolonen earned for his adventurous and stirring performance.

A few snapshots from the day…

Practicing in the hallway before first round of competition
Luthier Kenny Hill is framed by two of his guitars
Composer Stephen Goss and the LAGQ’s Scott Tennant outside Robert Barto’s lute concert

Robert Barto Makes the Past Present
We end this first report with the Wednesday afternoon concert by noted lutenist Robert Barto. This was yet another extraordinary program, completely different than any that preceded it in Fullerton. Barto divided his time onstage performing on (modern versions of) two period instruments, works by two composers who lived more than 100 years apart: the Vihuela of the Spanish Renaissance’s Luis (or Luys) Milán (c.1500-1561), and the Baroque lute of Germany’s Sylvius Leopold Weiss (1687-1750). In the case of Milán, Barto played a series of Fantasias and Pavans, carefully explaining how they progressed over time and became more elaborate. This music really evokes the era from which it comes so vividly. When I closed my eyes, I could almost see elegant lords and ladies dancing, their gowns and capes swishing on stone floors behind them in a scene illuminated by torches on high castle walls. (I’m sure common folk also enjoyed this music, and probably in less inhibited ways!). Barto was able to elicit such a crisp, clear tone out of his Viola da mano (Vihuela), both when strumming chords and also unleashing lightning-quick ornamental flourishes in the miniscule spaces between some of those rich chords; amazing!

The second half of his presentation was on a 13-course lute, his specialty. (Barto had earlier noted that he’d only been playing the Vihuela for “a couple of years,” and during the lute portion wryly commented, “The baroque lute is what got me the gig; then I brought the Vihuela.”) Truth be told, this was my first live solo lute experience (I don’t count any I might have heard at a Renaissance Faire) and I was swept away by Barto’s playing on Weiss’ six-movement Sonata 36 in D minor. Those resonant low notes, the delectable counterpoint: Wow, I’m a convert! Barto, too, earned a “standing O” and played a touching encore: the “Sarabande” from Weiss’ Sonata 38 .

Barto plays Milán’s Fantasia 18, which he also performed at GFA.

Next: French virtuoso Jérémy Jouve, competition semi-finals, Alvaro Pierri, and lots more!

Click here to read Part 2, Part 3, and Part 4 of our GFA report.