Report from GFA #2: Finalists Announced! Semifinal Performances and More

Raphael Feuillatre, Hao Yang, Andrey Lebedev, Bokyung Byun. Photo: Kenneth Kam/GFA

At the close of Thursday’s magnificent concert by Antigoni Goni (more on that in tomorrow’s report), the four guitarists who will compete in the finals of the GFA’s International Concert Artist Competition on Saturday were announced: Hao Yang (China), Raphael Feuillatre (France), Bokyung Byun (South Korea), and Andrey Lebedev (Australia). Congrats to one and all! More on the semifinal competition below.

First, though, we return to Wednesday night’s marquee concert, featuring the much-loved Germany-based Amadeus Duo—Thomas Kirchhoff and Dale Kavanagh—a supremely sonorous pair who presented a program that was heavy on melodious and agreeable choices. For better or worse, they peaked right out of the gate, with a splendid and spirited version of Händel’s Suite No 7 in G Minor, HV 432. Immediately we got a taste of the duo’s incredible onstage chemistry, as they effortlessly traded “lead” lines or finished a line the other had started, all in perfect time and with great panache. It’s fun to see the looks between them, the smiles and unspoken thoughts, as they go through their paces, obviously having so much together doing what they love.

Another first-half highlight was the “Allegro moderato” movement from the String Quartet No. 2 by Russian composer Alexander Borodin (1833–1887). Kirchhoff undersold the piece when he described it as “nothing virtuosic, nothing spectacular,” but was right on the money when he went on to describe it as “eight minutes of beautiful music”; that it was.

The second half opened with a solo segment by Kavanagh, who played four short pieces of her own—homages to Barrios and Malcolm Arnold (that was a nice change of pace), and a pair of works she’d written for her one-time roommate, guitarist Hilary Field (who happens to be one of my favorite players). Kirchhoff then returned to the stage and the duo launched into a bold, two-guitar arrangement of the Bach “Chaconne” (from Partita for Violin No. 2, BWV 1004). I’ve heard that piece a lot in the last year (many folks seem to be recording it these days) so I was excited to hear it performed by two guitars (in a transcription by Ulrich Straacke). As I had hoped, there were passages that sounded deliciously rich, positively orchestral, but my overall response was not positive. Even with added parts and ornaments, it somehow felt emotionally remote to me, as if the piece’s monumental energy, so difficult to truly harness for even great solo guitarists—the battle, both musical and spiritual, is part of what’s glorious about it!—was diluted or diffused by having two players share the load. I’m reasonably certain there are many who would disagree with that assessment, however; it drew a sustained ovation. Definitely an interesting attempt. I’m actually anxious to hear it again.

I spent virtually all of Thursday in Comstock Hall watching the 12 semifinalists in action, and I thought all of them played very well. For real! I’m not just being nice, honest! The downside of the day for me was having to sit through 12 performances of the required set piece: Roberto Sierra’s “Salseado” from his Sonata para guitarra. I will charitably say I “never really warmed to it.” In truth I found it ugly, abrasive, and unpleasant. Of course the point is to challenge the guitarists and maybe take them out of their comfort zone, and it certainly did that, I guess. But that doesn’t mean I have to like it. I might have felt differently if anyone’s version had approached this quite musical one by Marcin Dylla.


Again, I’m sure I’m in the minority on this (I heard it described as “fresh” and “invigorating”); I’m used to be being the odd man out from time to time.

That gripe out of the way, I’d like to highlight one piece by each of the 12 semifinalists (in the order in which they played):

Hao Yang’s wonderful reading of Rodrigo’s Sonata Giocosa, with its contrasting movements and concluding with it galloping, playful close; Bokyung Byun’s exquisitely sad and beautiful Fantasia, P71 by Dowland; Ami Inoi’s breathtaking, hyper rendition of Miroslav Tadic’s Walk Dance; Raphael Feuillarte’s deeply expressive Sinfonia from Bach’s second Partita for Keyboard, BWV 826; Marko Topchii’s slow-building, simmering reading of Tansman’s Pasacaille (he also played the most musical version of “Salseado,” showing remarkable taste and restraint); Giulia Ballare’s emotional take on Mertz’s Elegie.

Andrey Lebedev’s solid and thoughtful La Ciudad de las Columnas, by the Man of the Week at GFA, Leo Brouwer; Thierry Begin-Lamontagne’s nicely variegated rendering of Patrick Roux’s excellent Valse Vertigo; Steve Cowan’s courageous choice of Jason Noble’s sparse, deceptively simple, modern piece, Shadow Prism; the final, intensely lyrical and profound section of Sondre Høymer’s adventurous pick of Britten’s mammoth Nocturnal After John Dowland; Ji Hyung Park’s lively and assured Sonata K.491 by Scarlatti; and Pauline Gauthey’s moody and mysterious trip through Takemitsu’s Equinox. Wow, what a stimulating and enjoyable day of music from six centuries!

Next: Antigoni Goni conquers the GFA again (she won it in 1995), and lots more.