BY BLAIR JACKSON/CONCERT PHOTOS BY KENNETH KAM (COURTESY OF GFA)
Thursday is always my favorite day at GFA because it features the semi-final round of the International Concert Artist Competition (ICAC), which means I get to hear 12 skilled players performing a broad cross-section of both popular and more obscure repertoire from different eras. This year’s group (who performed in two groups of six on June 20) might have been the strongest overall that I’ve heard in the five years I’ve been attending the GFA. I thought this year’s semifinals set piece, Fantasia, a 1957 work by Catalonian composer Roberto Gerhard (1896–1970) was much more palatable and interesting than the usual difficult fare they throw at the guitarists; it was fascinating hearing how the players handled the different sections of the work. I rated Michael Butten’s dynamic and assured version the best of the 12.
Here, in my humble estimation, was the highlight from the program of each of the 12 semifinalists, in the order in which they performed: Ji Hyung Park (South Korea): Scarlatti’s Sonata K.209; Andrzej Geiger (Poland): Brouwer’s Sonata; Liying Zhu (China): Villa-Lobos’ Étude No. 2; Dmytro Omelchak (Ukraine): Coste’s Fantasies sur deux motifs de la Norma, Op. 16; Michael Butten (UK): Legnani’s Fantasia in A; Alec Holcomb (USA): Gaspar Cassado’s ‘Preludio-Fantasia’ from Suite for Solo Cello (arr. Holcomb); Marko Topchii (Ukraine): Castelnuovo-Tedesco’s Capriccio diabolico; Pauline Gauthey (France): Arthur Kampela’s Percussion Study; Gian Marco Ciampa (Italy): Regondi’s Introduction et Caprice, Op. 23; Cyprien N’tsaï (France): Manjón’s Aire Vasco; Johan Smith (Switzerland): Rodrigo’s Sonata giocosa; Lazhar Cherouana (France): José’s Sonata para guitara.
Now, I would in no way ever be qualified to be a juror in a competition such as this, but as a fan I’m always going have opinions about favorites. I quietly take notes and rate each piece; it’s part of my fun! This year, as fate would have it, all four of the eventual finalists were among my picks, with Michael Butten and Johan Smith as “definites” on my scorecard, and then four other guitarists (sorry, couldn’t make up my mind) vying for the other two spots: Alec Holcomb, Dmytro Omelchak, Gian Marco Ciampa, and Cyprien N’tsai. (I would not have been surprised to or disappointed to see either Marko Topchii or Ji Hyung Park among the four, either; like I said, a very strong field!) The results were announced during the intermission of the Thursday night concert by the Brasil Guitar Duo, and seemed to be well-received by the crowd.
Videos of the semifinals—as well as the finals, earlier rounds, and other competitions (Junior and Senior Divisions, Ensembles)—are all archived on the GFA Facebook page: It’s a great place to visit for a hours at a time!
Speaking of that Brasil Guitar Duo concert, João Luiz and Douglas Lora presided over a typically diverse and energetic evening concert June 19, opening with a delightful take on two of Rameau’s Baroque Pieces de Clavecin (which, though a trendy pick among solo guitarists these days, still sound best played by a duo), Castelnuovo-Tedesco’s Prelude and Fugue in C# Minor, and contemporary works by Brouwer, Frederic Hand (Still was written for the duo), and their countryman Egberto Gismonti, whose multi-textured and continually surprising Sete Anéis has been in the their repertoire for a number of years and appeared on their great 2017 album Ghosting. The last piece before intermission was truly special, too: They were joined by convention co-host (and second-day solo performer) Rafael Padrón for a sparkling trio piece. For Lora, too, this event marked a homecoming of sorts: He studied at the U of M more than a decade ago, and also with Padrón.
Friday (June 21) was filled with concerts, all of them compelling. First up, at around midday, was a two-part affair featuring Russia-born Irina Kulikova, followed by Cuban virtuoso Iliana Matos.
Kulikova presented three excellent three-movement works, beginning with Noches de San Lorenzo, a deep and affecting work by veteran Spanish guitarist and composer José María Gallardo del Rey (whom Irina met at a competition when she was just 11, she said), and concluding with a fine reading of Torroba’s popular Sonatina. In between she was joined onstage by cellist Feliks Volozhanin for a wonderful new piece called Three Night Ballads, by Russian composer Konstantin Vassiliev, dedicated to Kulikova, and soon to be heard on an album by this occasional guitar-cello duo. Irina noted that she has known Feliks since she was 8 years old—they lived on the same street and attended the same music school. (These days, Feliks lives in southern California.) While the cello occasionally overwhelmed the guitar, it was still easy to tell that Vassiliev’s piece gives plenty of weight to both parts in that suite. I particularly liked the balladic third movement, “Magic Ship.”
To me, it sounded as if Iliana Matos was somewhat off her game during parts of her program. There were a few unsteady passages in Ponce’s Sonata Clásica (which, purely by coincidence, we had featured her playing recently as one of our Video Pick of the Week selections), and the Tárrega show-stopper the Gran Jota didn’t quite achieve its usually reliable fireworks. But in between those, she tapped into the rich catalog of her countryman Leo Brouwer for a strong reading of his Danzas Rituales y Festivas. Besides performing, Iliana was also part of the distinguished panel of judges during the first round of the ICAC.
The Zoran Dukic concert Friday afternoon (June 21), was a complete and utter triumph in my view. I was pretty sure going into it that I would enjoy it—after all, I loved his most recent album, Bach-Piazzolla, which artfully alternates compositions by each of those composers, and the bulk of his one-hour program was to feature seven of the 11 works from the album (though in a different order). Still, I wasn’t prepared for just how amazing it would be to hear him performing them in person, as essentially one continuous work (i.e. no breaks for applause): four movements of Bach and three by Piazzolla, all played with such power and subtlety; the deeply spiritual Bach ascending to the heavens each time, while the Piazzolla brought us back to a more visceral, human dimension. It really takes a virtuoso of the highest order to pull off a high-concept program like this, and Dukic was brilliant at every turn. Then the rest of his program was a bold left-turn from the Bach-Piazzolla: Stephen Goss’ six-part Cinema Paradiso suite, in which the British composer (who was on hand for the concert; he’s a fixture at GFA) dips into the world of film (the title comes from Italian director Giuseppe Tornatore’s Oscar-winning 1990 film, curiously not represented in the suite), conveying some of the mood/vibe of such diverse cinematic works as Paris, Texas (inspired by Ry Cooder’s haunting slide guitar soundtrack) and Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times (a great excuse for Goss to try his hand at mechanized industrial sound), and, more generally, the film noir genre and director Quentin Tarantino. Zoran preceded the work with a helpful, detailed, often humorous explanation of the six movements that was nearly as long as the piece itself! Stylistically it was all over the map, but definitely entertaining and invigorating. Goss took a well-deserved bow at the end.
The icing on this particularly delectable cake (to use a tortured metaphor) was an encore selection for which Dukic brought out guitarist Helen Sanderson (whom he described as “my better half”). Together, they performed Ida Presti’s marvelously evocative duo piece Berceuse à ma mère, written in 1957 shortly after the death of her mother, but never recorded by the Presti-Lagoya Duo. (It does appear on Olivier Chassain and Stein-Erik Olsen’s essential 2009 album The Works of Ida Presti for Two Guitars.) A great way to end a magnificent concert!
The grand Friday evening concert (June 21) by Manuel Barrueco drew the largest audience of the festival, clearly attracting a sizable contingent of fans beyond the convention’s attendees, including a fair number of people from Miami’s Cuban community. For this concert, the Cuban-born American guitarist Barrueco presented a special program he’s been playing this year called “Music of Spain & Cuba” which beautifully links music from those culturally connected countries through the centuries. It opened with three Spanish Renaissance pieces by Luis de Narváez and then immediately juxtaposed those with a nine-part piece called Yoruban Chants from Cuba by contemporary Cuban composer Héctor Angulo (1932–2018), which draws from traditional African themes that were brought over to Cuba by enslaved people centuries ago, and gradually seeped into Caribbean music/culture. The first half of the concert also included the five Cuban Dances by Ignacio Cervantes (1847–1905) and Prelude and Dance by Julián Orbón (1925–1991). The second half was tilted more toward familiar Spanish names—works by Granados, Albéniz, and (transcriptions by) Tárrega, but definitely not the standard repertoire we so often hear. For instance, in keeping with the theme of the evening, we were treated to Granados’ A la Cubana, Op. 36 and the “Cuba” movement from Albéniz’s Suite Españiola, Op. 47 (as well as “Castilla” and “Aragon.”) And the Tárrega transcriptions included the historic La Poloma habanera by Sebastián Yradier (or Iradier). Maestro Barrueco was in total command throughout, showing once again why is unarguably in the very top strata of contemporary guitar players. The audience refused to let him go, and eventually cajoled two encores out of him, including a lovely piece by Scarlatti. I sure would love to get my hands on a recording of this incredibly rich and involving “Music of Spain & Cuba” program (nearly all of which was new to me), but I will settle with seeing it again when he comes to San Francisco on October 13. I can’t wait! Magnifico!
Alas, I had to fly back to California on Saturday (June 22) and miss the finals of the ICAC. As fate would have it, the performances were beginning right at the time I was getting in my car at San Francisco airport, so I dialed in the GFA’s Facebook page to listen in my car, and voila!, there was Michael Butten just starting Britten’s Nocturnal after John Dowland. Unfortunately, it was so noisy in the massive traffic jam I found myself in during rush hour going home to Oakland, I quickly realized that this would not be the way for me to hear these performances properly, so I abandoned ship, so to speak, and instead watched and listened a couple of days later when I could give it my undivided attention. It’s so great that live (and then archived) webcasts are becoming a fact of life in the guitar world!
At any rate, it’s clear that all four finalists were up to the task of playing well in that extremely high-pressure environment. It was interesting for me to hear versions of Butten playing the Nocturnal and Johan Smith taking on Ponce’s massive Variations et Fugue sur ‘Folia de España’ so soon after hearing Marcin Dylla play both of those pieces as well as I’ve heard anyone play them, just a few days earlier. But I thought both Butten and Smith sounded great, too—and evidently the judging panel, which included Marcin Dylla, agreed! Alec Holcomb excelled on another giant work: Bach’s Chaconne; also very strong. And Dymtro Omelchak’s “big” piece really suited his very serious and dramatic onstage demeanor: Ginastera’s bold, expressionist Sonata, Op. 47.
This year’s required piece was a propulsive and somewhat dissonant work by Pat Metheny, generally considered a fairly melodic jazz guitarist and composer, but who also has never shied away from more abstract musings (Song X, with Ornette Coleman, anyone?)—such as this four-minute kinetic burst, which is reportedly the first movement of an unnamed work he is creating for Jason Vieaux (who recorded an entire album of considerably more “friendly” Metheny pieces, called Images of Metheny).
If you’d like to check out all four of the finals performances, this link will save you having to wade through the GFA’s Facebook page.
A last thought: At one of the concerts early on in the week it was announced that scholar, author, and editor Thomas Heck—who is described on the GFA website as “the individual most responsible for the creation of the Guitar Foundation of America, having convened its inaugural meeting in 1973 and drafted its Articles of Incorporation and Bylaws”—is formally retiring, including his position as the editor of the GFA’s Soundboard Scholar annual. I had the opportunity to speak with him couple of times at recent GFAs, and he could not have been warmer or more supportive. He is truly loved by the guitar community, and his important work as a historian and researcher has already influenced and affected so many people around the world. It was great seeing him sitting in the front row at virtually every concert this year, rapt by the music flowing from the stage.
And one last image, just because I like it, from Kenneth Kam:
To read Part 1 of our report from the 2019 GFA convention, click here!