Some Highlights from the Miami GFA, Part 1: Yamandu, Marcin, Raphaella, and More!

From Brazil with love: Yamandu Costa

BY BLAIR JACKSON/CONCERT PHOTOS BY KENNETH KAM (COURTESY OF GFA)

June 22 marked the end of this year’s outstanding Guitar Foundation of America (GFA) convention in Miami, Florida. As has been widely publicized, the deserving winner of the prestigious International Concert Artist Competition (ICAC) was Swiss guitarist Johan Smith (the first player from that country to win top honors), with Michael Butten of England placing second, American Alec Holcomb third, and the Ukraine’s Dmytro Omelchak fourth. All are truly outstanding players; more on them in our second report.

As always, there were a number of exceptional concerts over the nearly week-long event, as well as lectures, master classes (with Marcin Dylla, Raphaella Smits, and Manuel Barrueco—quite a group!), roundtable discussions, a luthier’s fair, and more, all in just a few buildings dedicated to the Frost School of Music on the beautiful, modern campus of the University of Miami. The hosts were Dr. Federico Musgrove Stetson (faculty member at Frost and the Miami Conservatory of Music, and also founding president and current director of the Florida Guitar Foundation), and U of M professor and Guitar Program director Rafael Padrón, aided by the usual friendly and efficient corps of volunteer helpers who kept everything running smooth as silk for the entire convention. The weather was predictably hot and humid, but of course all the buildings on campus are well air conditioned.

Herewith, a few highlights from the GFA, with concert photos galore supplied by guitarist, teacher, and scholar Kenneth Kam (who also presented a lecture on William Walton’s Five Bagatelles), plus a few casual iPhone snaps by yours truly, as well as some remarks about the concerts I attended during my three full days there (Wednesday through Friday; the event spanned Monday night through Saturday night). Thanks, as always, to the good people at GFA—including current president Martha Masters and artistic director Brian Head, and all the others who work both at the convention and year-round, to make the GFA the wonderful and important organization it is!

This lovely mini-lake is in the heart of the south campus of the University of Miami (a.k.a.”The U”). Photo: BJ
The U of M Student Center (left) and the Gusman Concert Hall, where the concerts and some of the competitions took place. Photo: BJ
I didn’t see any crocodiles or snakes, but the lake did have lots of flying fish skittering about. Photo: BJ

As is the tradition at GFA, the opening night concert (June 17) featured last year’s talented winner, Raphaël Feuillâtre, who played an extremely varied program that showcased his versatility, with pieces by everyone from Barrios, Villa-Lobos, and Llobet to Brouwer, Assad, and Scriabin. (Several of the pieces he played appear on his great new Guitar Recital album on Naxos.) From September 2019 through the Spring of 2020, Raphaël will be making the 50-city North American tour that is part of his prize for winning the 2018 GFA. You’re in for a treat, America and Canada; don’t miss him!

Last year’s ICAC winner Raphaël Feuillâtre

Though there was no announced theme to this year’s GFA, there was certainly a very strong undercurrent of Cuban music running through the week. After all, Miami is home to the largest Cuban population in the United States; the guitar world has been celebrating the 80th birthday of Leo Brouwer (actually beginning last year when he came to GFA and made several other U.S. appearances); and the director of guitar at U of M is Cuban himself! So, what a treat that the aforementioned Rafael Padrón devoted his late-morning concert to performing works by Brouwer, including 10 of his “Omaggios” (to Debussy, Barrios, Tárrega, Piazzolla, Stravinsky, et al), well-known pieces such as Danza Caracteristica and Un dia de Noviembre, and several other works.

Rafael Padrón, co-host of the GFA convention

Duo Sonidos is the name of the guitar-violin combo of Americans Adam Levin (who has been covered in CG for his important series of albums, 21st Century Spanish Guitar) and William Knuth—they, too have a new album out on Naxos, called Wild Dance, which features their own unique arrangements. Their concert on June 18 showed some of their range, spanning works by Handel and then modern composers Lukas Foss, Eduardo Morales-Caso, and Karol Szymanowski.

Duo Sonidos: Adam Levin (L) and William Knuth

Kosovo-born guitarist Petrit Çeku also presented a broad spectrum of works, including Haydn, Barrios, Piazzolla, Schubert, and, on the less well-known front, 18th century Croatian composer Luka Sorkočević. I’ve been super-impressed by him anytime I’ve heard an album by him or seen a video on YouTube, and I’m sorry I missed this.

Petrit Çeku

A relatively late addition to the June 18 concert roster at GFA (because another artist had travel/visa issues) was the extraordinary Brazilian seven-string guitar master Yamandu Costa, featured in what was billed as “An Evening of Performance and Conversation,” spearheaded by the dean of the Frost School of Music, Shelly Berg, himself a well-known (multiple Grammy-nominated) pianist, arranger, orchestrator, and producer. The program, which several folks raved to me about when I arrived the next day, included an onstage interview conducted by Berg, with lots of talk and demonstrations about technique and styles of Brazilian music, the two musicians playing together some, and of course Yamandu commanding the stage alone in his inimitable way. If you’ve ever seen him perform live (I have, in San Francisco) you know what a magnetic, spontaneous, and inspirational virtuoso he is!

Shelly Berg and Yamandu Costa

The first of the concerts I got to see (June 18) featured the adventurous English guitarist Laura Snowden, who graced the Fall 2016 cover of Classical Guitar magazine, but hadn’t appeared in the U.S. until this past spring. It was worth the wait! Her stimulating program was bookended by deftly played classical pieces by Sor and Regondi, but dominated in the middle by a trio of modern works, two of which she wrote: the haunting Anpao, which includes gentle flower-petal passages that sound almost like they’re being played on a koto, and short wordless vocal moments, full of interesting overtones; and L’étoile  et la rose, which she explained was inspired by the children’s story The Little Prince. The third modern piece was Ollie Mustonen’s dramatic, occasionally cacophonous Sonata No. 2, which was a 2017 Julian Bream Trust commission Snowden premiered in London. Snowden’s engaging stage personality and obvious skill as a player seemed to win over an audience most of whom had probably never heard her at all—she has yet to put out an album, but that is bound to change. She’s one to watch, for sure!

Laura Snowden
Laura offstage after her program. Photo: BJ

The guitar duo Les Frères Méduses (who played the second half of the concert Snowden opened on June 19) is comprised of Frenchman Benoît Albert and American Randall Avers, and their set was completely contemporary—and thoroughly entertaining. My favorite was Atanas Ourkouzounov’s Broken Grooves, a recent work he dedicated to the deux Frères; it’s a somewhat abstract journey into different rhythms and meters (5/8, 9/8/ 11/8) that are reflective of the composer’s Balkan origins. The duo also played two pieces dubbed Free Improvisation that I really enjoyed. The first of the two was particularly intriguing: It had the guitarists spontaneously improvising as they watched (on an iPad we unfortunately could not see) late-19th-century film footage shot by the pioneering French filmmaker Georges Méliès from a train traveling near Paris. A later improv had intriguing trance elements. Avers’ own Rhapsodie ‘Mekanisk’ was perhaps the most “normal” piece they performed—I could swear I heard an echo of Bellinati’s Jongo in there during the uptempo portions (but perhaps I hallucinated that; hearing a lot of improvised music will make you do that). I also liked Joseph V. Williams’ Memoria (also dedicated to the duo), which has two nicely contrasting sections: a lovely Prelude and then a rich modern-sounding Fantasy. The three compositions listed above all appear on the duo’s new 2-CD set out on the Les Productions d’Oz label, which I own but have yet to hear; it’s called Signature/Still Life, and the second disc appears to be 60-minute free improvisation! I look forward to giving that a spin soon.

Les Frères Méduses: Benoît Albert (L) and Randall Avers

Over at the more intimate Clarke Hall on June 19, Raphaël Feuillâtre and Xavier Jara (respective winners of the 2018 and 2016 ICAC) managed to enthrall a nearly full auditorium of folks at a Luthier Showcase in which they demonstrated the sound of 22 different guitars from the Luthier Fair which took place in the nearby School of Music Building. I’d never seen one of these demos before. For each guitar, Xavier would play a short (roughly one-minute) passage, then hand the guitar to Raphaël, who played a different passage. They played the same two passages for each of the instruments, as the audience followed along on lists of the guitars, which were not identified by name, only number, from the stage. They all sounded pretty good to me, but I am definitely no expert in these matters. Anyway, an interesting demonstration to witness.

Raphaël Feuillâtre (L) and Xavier Jara took turns demonstrating the sound of different guitars. Photo: BJ

Ever since I saw Raphaella Smits play at the GFA in Denver a few years ago, I’ve been anxious to see her again, and she did not disappoint me at her “Homage to the Baroque” concert on the late afternoon of June 19. Performing works from latest Soundset album, Ave Maria: Baroque Recital, Smits reached back for superb versions of Purcell’s Suite II (capo’d at the third fret, if you care about such matters) and Telemann’s Fantasie 9, offered Ponce’s “modern” Baroque suite (itself an homage to that era), and closed with an epic rendering of Bach’s Chaconne, which she prefaced by humorously noting that it would be her single “Desert Island” pick: “I would take the Chaconne and be entirely happy,” she said, seconds before diving in to those deep and glorious musical waters.

Raphaella Smits and her 8-string John Gilbert guitar

Another GFA tradition is that the Wednesday Night concert opens with a piece performed by the Youth Guitar Orchestra, under the patient and always enthusiastic direction of Chuck Hulihan, head of the guitar program at Glendale Community College in Arizona (and with other credits too numerous to list here). It’s always a kick to  hear a large group (in this case 15) of young players—some perhaps the guitar stars of tomorrow!—performing together with comparatively little rehearsal. They’re always good, too; this year might have been my favorite of the past five I’ve seen at GFA. The short work they played was a world premiere, too: Guitarchestra No. 10 “Festive” by British composer Mark Houghton. I loved the way some of the guitars took on cello-like tones in parts to create a resonant bass underpinning to support the main theme, which sounded vaguely Italian to me (more Morricone than Carulli!), and I also appreciated that it had some slightly off-kilter melodic jabs that brought Bernard Hermann to my mind. Really a lot of fun. It was just about flawless, and the standing ovation was well-deserved. Here’s a link to the music at Les Productions d’Oz. And you can watch the GFA performance here.

Chuck Hulihan and the Youth Guitar Orchestra bask in the glory of their performance.

Marcin Dylla‘s Wednesday night concert (June 19) was the first of three that I found to be completely transcendent and transporting. (This is not minimize any of the others; merely to suggest that for whatever reasons, these three—the other two will be revealed in Part 2 or my report—left me speechless and, in the parlance of the ’60s rock culture that is so much a part of me, blew my mind.) Now, I am the first to admit that when I see Britten’s Nocturnal looming at me from a concert program, my heart does not exactly skip with joy and anticipation. I mentioned this to Marcin the next morning when I saw him and he laughed and said, “I feel the same way! I just want it to not be boring.” Well, mission accomplished on that front! By the time he got to that piece, right after the intermission of what had already been a stupendous program, I knew I was going to be in very good hands navigating through the sometimes difficult cross-currents and dark eddies of the first half of the piece, and that by the time we finally arrived at the full beauty of the Dowland theme, we would have gone on a most-rewarding spiritual journey together. Wow! Still, it was the following piece—the even longer Theme, Variations, and Fugue on ‘Folia de España’ by Ponce—that impressed me most. It goes through so many fascinating, exciting, and virtuosic Spanish realms, yet always maintains its continuity despite the ever-shifting terrain. It was jaw-droppingly good, in my humble estimation. (Both of those pieces are featured on Dylla’s latest album—called Vintage, released by the Harris Guitar Foundation—which I bought at the merchandise table immediately after the concert.)

I would also like to mention that in the first half of the concert he brilliantly strung together two groups of three unrelated pieces to in effect create two “new” works that hung together so powerfully. The first three were Maurice Ohana’s Tiento, Falla’s Homenaje pour le Tombeau de Claude Debussy, and Milhaud’s Segoviana; the second brought together Sofia Gubaidulina’s Serenade, Elliott Carter’s Shard, and Jose M. Sanchez-Verdu’s Kitab 1. I’d love to hear all those again! A great night; I floated back to the hotel after that one, sated and smiling.

Marcin Dylla
Marcin Dylla and Raphaella Smits the morning after their concerts. Photo: BJ

Coming soon: Part 2, featuring the semi-finals, finals, and concerts by Zoran Dukic, Manuel Barrueco, and more!