The Next Generation: Inside the 7th Rago International Competition in Stuttgart, Germany

Ema Kabor, first prize winner

A report from judges Graham Wade and Oyvind Lyslo

Ema Kabor, first-prize winner
Ema Kabor, first prize winner

The annual Rago International Competition, which took place at the Stuttgarter Musikschule, Germany, February 14, 2015, featured two categories: candidates up to 16 years old and 14 years old respectively (ten to 15 minutes recital for each participant). Competitors choose their own repertoire by and large (pieces should differ in style and character), but must also perform a set piece composed by Alexis Rago; the work prescribed this year being his very expressive Serenata Doliente. The participants are youngsters still in school with a notable dedication to guitar playing but in some cases perhaps not yet totally decided whether to devote themselves to a music career. Marks are given for musicianship, tone, technique, and stage presence.

The international jury for the senior class this year consisted of Alfred Eickholt (Germany), Völker Höh (Germany) and Graham Wade (England), while the younger group were adjudicated by Felix Bullock (USA), Philippe Loli (Monaco) and Oyvind Lyslo (Norway). All performances are open to the public and a substantial audience was present in the spacious, well-equipped halls of the Stuttgarter Musikschule for both age categories.

Mariela Rago and second-prize winner Moritz Kraus
Mariela Rago and second-prize winner Moritz Kraus

The organizers of the Rago Competition are the famous duo, Alfonso Montes and his wife, Irina Kircher, both guitar professors at the conservatory where the event takes place. Each year the competition commemorates the life and work of Alexis Rago (1930-2009), founder/director of the Maracay Conservatoire, Venezuela, and a prolific composer and passionate advocate of the classical guitar. His widow, Mariela Rago, now living in Monte Carlo, Monaco, sponsors the competition each year with intense affection and insight. Her warm encouragement and energetic presence provide constant inspiration to youngsters, jury, and audience alike.

Her co-sponsors include the City of Stuttgart and the Stuttgarter Musikschule itself, as well as the D’Addario Foundation, Savarez Strings, Wittner and IntelliTouch. Special tribute must also be given for the generosity of the distinguished Spanish guitar maker, Vicente Carrillo, who each year supplies two magnificent guitars as prizes—this year to those considered to perform the set piece best. Cash prizes available include 2,500 euros for each category winner, with second prizes of 1,500 euros, and third prizes of 1,000 euros. There were also gifts of strings and other accessories for fine performances.

My colleague, Oyvind Lyslo, has kindly written the following account of the junior group in the competition:


“There are not so many international guitar competitions for young classical guitarists, but the Rago Competition in Stuttgart certainly deserves its place amongst the finest and best organized. The two age groups performed simultaneously in the Karl-Adler Saal and Robert-Bosch Saal at the Stuttgart Music School, each with a separate jury present.

“There were 15 competitors up to 14 years of age in the youngest group, and they were all well prepared. Obviously there was a distinction between the youngest and the oldest competitors as far as tone quality, technique and overall musicianship is concerned. Still, it must be stated that the pure fact of joining the competition for an 11- to 12-year-old provides an invaluable experience. It will be very interesting to follow some of these young players in the years to come.

“The performances consisted of standards by Bach, Tárrega, Brouwer, Villa-Lobos, Barrios, and Albeniz to Sor, Coste, Weiss, Carulli and Legnani amongst others, and there were numerous moments of lasting impression. The youngest group’s set pieces were chosen from the Guitar-Intro Repertoire Book by the Montes Kirchner Duo (Alfonso Montes and Irina Kirchner), a comprehensive collection of more than 100 graded pieces for students, most of them originals. This repertoire has a considerable range in difficulty, and some of the pieces are indeed challenging for a young player.

“The jury unanimously gave Ana Gorjanc the Interpretation Award for her brilliant performance of Ulrich Wedlich’s Valse, and she was then the lucky winner of one of the guitars. Nor was the jury in any doubt about the first prize winner of the competition up to 14 years. Leonora Spangenberger’s performance of the Fugue from J.S. Bach’s Prelude, Fugue and Allegro was certainly in the top division, and so were her interpretations of Hans Werner Henze’s Tiento and Legnani’s Caprice. In lieu of second prize, two third prizes were awarded, to Eric Vidovic and Niklas Junker.”

The senior class was won by Ema Kabor with superb renderings of Bach’s Prelude BWV 998, and Barrios’ Un sueño en la floresta. Moritz Kraus came second with Romanza by Mertz, Vals No. 4, Op. 3 by Barrios, and the third movement from Bogdanovic’s Jazz Sonata. Moritz also won the Vicente Carrillo award and the coveted guitar for his beautiful playing of Serenata Doliente. In third place, Truong An Dinh delighted his audience with Buxtehude’s Allemande, Diabelli’s Sonata in A, and Walton’s Bagatelles Nos 1 and 5. Julia Lange dazzled the jury with her sparkling playing of Rodrigo’s Zapateado and Andrzej Grygier matched her brilliance with Walton’s Bagatelle No. 5, a handful for any player. Both of these were given D’Addario Awards.

Eden Stell Duo, the third-prize winner
Eden-Stell Duo during their encore

In the evening, the Eden-Stell Duo performed a virtuosic program of Couperin, Rameau, Mompou, and Piazzolla. As an encore the two played on one guitar, inspiring both laughs and admiration as to how it was done! After a quarter-century of performances as a duo, Mark Eden and Christopher Stell offer one of the finest displays of duo music on the planet. This autumn they are embarking with their Vida Quartet on a 40-recital concert tour of Merica—not to be missed.

Each year we leave Stuttgart with a sense of optimism about the younger generation and the future of classical guitar playing. Next year, it would marvellous to see young competitors from the US making the journey in February to Stuttgart—even if you do not win the main prize, the experience of participating in such an event is priceless!

(Photos by Suzie Wade, Ingrid Lyslo, and Graham Wade)