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(This web page originally appeared as an article in the Washington Guitar Society newsletter No. 14, May 1994.)

The 1993 GFA Guitar Festival

Buffalo, New York

The next Guitar Foundation of America (GFA) festival will be held in Quebec and is coming up fast - July, 1994. If you've never been to a guitar festival, you might get an idea of the nice time to be had from these personal memories of last year's festival in Buffalo.

David Russell's masterclass was great, as always. His tips on the musical interpretation of a piece seem so perfect and logical that you'll wonder why you don't think of such "obvious" things when you play. (The fact of the matter is, though, that his performance genius is reserved for a miniscule fraction of the human race.) Two pointers he gave rang a bell with me. He told one guy to leave out a note that was causing problems and ruining the flow of a piece. "Nobody'll notice!" Another one I liked, but which surprised me a bit coming from a world class guitarist, was his advice to adjust some fingerings to get the stronger 2 and 3 fingers in position for some grace notes rather than the indicated fingers 3 and 4. (I've been doing that for years!) In fact, David could play it just fine with 3 and 4, but this nod to the rest of humanity was very kind of him. Regarding the glissando, David said to lean the finger over to avoid using the calloused part of the tip. When a student was having intonation problems with notes above the 12th fret, David suggested masking it with vibrato. "String players do it all the time!"

Roberto Aussel's master class was memorable for his quote, "The guitar is a hard instrument. We can play good... but it's not enough!" He went on to explain how every element of the music - every voice, every note, every rest, every everything - must be carefully considered. His concert the next evening put into practice everything he said. His control over the instrument and the music was astonishing. He received the only standing ovation of the festival (and I know who started it!)

Probably my least favorite concert was the one by the Baltimore Consort. They are certainly excellent musicians, but I don't know what to make of their mixture of authentic Renaissance instruments with non-authentic performance. In some cases, such as when they mimicked a rock group, they were just hamming it up for laughs. Ok, I'll go along with that. But in a lot of the other pieces, I doubt the ensemble was realistic, such as combining lute and cittern, or the playing styles authentic, such as the folky strumming of the lute and the frequent use of viols thrown over the right leg, Glen Campbell fashion, and plucked instead of bowed. This brings to my mind guitar arrangements of Mudarra's "Ludovica" Fantasia that observe the vihuela tuning (3rd string to F#), but then ignore completely the composer's fingerings, using an anachronistic cross-string fingering instead. I don't get it.

John Duarte wrote the set piece, "Danserie", for the competition. The first movement depicts a guitar lesson wherein the teacher demonstrates and the student makes a bumbling attempt to copy. Some of the contestants worked hilarious theatrics into their performances - awful playing positions, horrible tone, pained scrutiny of the sheet music, scratched heads, disgusted expressions, etc. One poor "pupil" even lost his grip on his guitar but, luckily, made a desperation catch with his knees.

The winner of the competition was Kevin Gallagher. His performance contained a some real thrills, like the 32nd note runs in a Legnani caprice (no. 36, I think) and the most amazingly powerful, artificial harmonics I have ever heard (in "Cordoba" by Albeniz.) However, he busted my heart with a greased lightening run-through of the fugue from Bach's violin sonata in C. Why do classical musicians always have to play so fast? At this festival, the Chaconne got the same business from another performer. Does anybody agree that for some pieces it wouldn't hurt to actually let the notes sink in?

The concert given by last year's winner, Jason Vieaux, was one of this festival's highlights. Everybody who heard it was abuzz. The program notes say he is only 19 years old, but we heard a matured artist. Besides his playing, the program itself (Morel, Regondi, Bach, Ponce and Pujol) was a delight.

My personal favorite to win the competition this year was the same as my favorite last year. His name is Andrew Zohn, and I believe him to be a very natural, classy player. He placed 3rd both times, but, given the level of competition, making the finals 2 years in a row is no small feat. I predict you'll be hearing from him.

In a guitar journal in recent years someone proposed a method similar to that used by Toastmasters for judging competitions. That makes complete sense to me. I'm sure that the GFA does not use it, and it worries me a little to think that the final decision may be a function of one or several judges' assertiveness. There should be no need for deliberation - just a final tallying of the judges' ballots.

One more thought on the competition - why not put out a "hat" for no-pressure, free-will contributions to be divided equally by the four finalists? The cash prizes offered by the GFA are not very large. The finalists are all very deserving. You know they worked like demons to get to that point. And the competition finals themselves are great entertainment.

There was a video tribute to Andres Segovia in which we saw Segovia angrily dismiss a student (Michael Chapdelaine) from the 1986 USC master class, and then patch things up a few days later after the student had spent two sleepless nights. A festival highlight for me was seeing Segovia on a 1954 Ed Sullivan show. Ed introduced him as, "one of the great names in American music." (As Montgomery Burns once said in a "Simpsons" episode, "What could old Ed have been thinking???") The first piece Segovia played was Villa-Lobos' Etude no. 1. The audience clapped prematurely and Segovia abandoned the end of the piece with a disgusted little wave of his hand - quite funny.

Jim Smith, who presented this video tribute, also had anecdotes of Segovia at Disneyland, being photographed with Shamu the whale, watching fireworks, and eating at McDonald's, etc. Jim wants to produce a video of highlights of Segovia's last USC master class. If and when he does, here's two cents from me - provide subtitles for Segovia's spoken word.

Of course, there were lots of guitar music publishers selling their wares. Willis Music, for example, was practically giving away its editions for $1 or $2. I very much enjoyed their edition of Bach's Prelude No. 1 from "The Well-Tempered Clavier", transcribed by Giovanni DeChiaro. (I was thinking it was the best transcription yet of this pesky piece, but a Soundboard review pointed out that, in making the continual arpeggiation possible, other misdeeds against Bach's original had been perpetrated.)

Another thing I picked up was the collected guitar duos of Johann Kaspar Mertz. I was surprised to find that his well-known Tarantella (such as edited and published by Sophocles Papas) forms just part 1 of a guitar duet.

Trivia quiz: What is the question most frequently asked of Bill Bay, the guy behind the table of Mel Bay publications? Answer: Is there really a Mel Bay? (Answer to the answer: Yes, it's his father.) Perhaps my first anthology of classical guitar music was "Mel Bay's Deluxe Album of Classic Guitar Music", edited by Joseph Castle. It will always hold a special place in my heart. I asked about Joseph Castle, and Bill said that Joe had passed just the previous year (Jan 28 1992).

One of my favorite lectures was Matanya Ophee's talk on Andrei Sychra, the Russian 7-string guitarist who was a comtemporary of Sor and Giuliani. He started a guitar journal in 1802. He engraved all of his own music - over 1000 pieces. The Russian 7-stringers transcribed the 6-string music of Carulli, etc., for their instrument. One contribution of the Russian guitarists may have been slurred runs, which Sor used in his music only after returning from Russia. Matanya verified my suspicion that one small problem of transcribing music from the 7-string guitar is its "denser" chords owing to the instrument being tuned in 3rds. The solution is to simply redistribute the notes of the chord. Also, since it is tuned to a major chord, some pieces written for it make use of full chords of natural harmonics. Matanya simply skips over these sorts of pieces when making transcriptions - "There are plenty of other songs to do." He very generously gave us all an etude by Sychra recently transcribed by him.

Another interesting talk was by Jan de Kloe on nine Haydn works transcribed by Francois de Fossa for two guitars. This 94 page work came to light only fairly recently and only one copy is known to exist. De Fossa used material from Haydn string quartets, symphonies and a piano sonata, plus some material which is doubted to be by Haydn at all (even though the original sheet music cover said "HAYDN" as big as life. What can you trust?) Jan determined that de Fossa didn't work directly from the symphonic scores; he used string quartet arrangements of the Haydn symphonies made by Hummel. All this musicological sleuthing was quite fascinating. Jan prepared a modern edition of the work for Editions Orphee. I would have rather seen it published in "edited facsimile" form (with touch-ups where needed, measures numbered, mistakes corrected, etc.) I believe facsimiles draw you into a more "authentic" performance mind set. If that sounds silly, how about, good, old facsimiles are simply more fun to look at and play? Here's a fun fact (astound your friends!): Haydn never used the tempo designation "Moderato".

As is usually the case, my biggest disappointment with the festival was the lack of opportunity to actually play guitar. The events ran from 8:30 AM to about 10:30 PM every day. More specifically, I regret the lack of ensemble playing (and this with an ensemble nut from our own area in attendance!) My suggestion to festival organizers is to reserve a music room for drop-in guitar ensembles - if not all day, at least during the lunch and dinner breaks. It would also be a big help if there were a guitar checking facility so that a participant doesn't have to lug his guitar around all day.

I appreciate that everything is "easier said than done", and the amount of work the organizers do do is almost unimaginable. Thanks, Joanne Castellani and Michael Andriaccio for a great festival!

Oh, I almost forgot, the hors d'oeuvres at the opening and closing receptions were very tasty.

 


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