Adelaide Guitar Festival

Review: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. August 2012, Adelaide Festival Centre. Published in Music Forum magazine, Vol 19 Issue 1 (November 2012)

Slava Grigoryan was on a mission, it seemed. As Artistic Director of the Fourth Adelaide International Guitar Festival, he might have set out to change views commonly held about what he calls the ‘world’s most popular instrument’. He could also have claimed the title of ‘world’s most versatile instrument’.

Four days were packed solid with concerts, workshops, masterclasses, exhibitions, lecture-demonstrations and interviews, plus a competition inviting players to enjoy Fifteen Minutes of Fame. By day three legato deprivation syndrome was looming, but no question that the guitar challenged all other contenders for the two titles, even coming close to knocking the piano and organ off their perches.

Guitar Trek played at the Adelaide Festival of Guitar - Timothy Kain Bradley Kunda Minh Le Hoang and Matt Withers.     mf191silsbury‘Most popular’? Indeed, and for good reason. Almost anybody, given the incentive and a decent ear, can make a nice noise with Aaron Shearer Prelude No 1 after a couple of lessons from a good teacher. Untold numbers of hormone-charged adolescents – predominantly boys – learn tonic, dominant and subdominant chords from each other and strum along with the latest pop song.[1]

None of this in the AIGF, but surely a major factor in the throngs (mainly men, by about 5:1) that packed out many concerts and had the staff scurrying for extra chairs at the workshops and master classes.

‘Most versatile’? Proof in a veritable dessert bar of puddings.

Players, singers and dancers from USA, Croatia, Bosnia, Brazil, and Korea plus more than 70 of Australia’s best and fairest graced the stages of the Festival Theatre and the Dunstan Playhouse[2] with solos, ensembles and bands embracing a range of musical categories and periods from the days before yesterday right up to today.

Tommy Emmanuel, Australian born, now resident in USA, was the star turn of the opening concert, a week in advance of the Festival proper. He played, demonstrating the seductive wizardry of his technique, to an enslaved houseful (1983 is the capacity of the Festival Theatre), and talked (about himself) for two and a quarter hours. His preceding support act, Frank Vignola and Vinnie Ranido, also came especially from New York at his express invitation. After a few engaging covers (Stardust, Killing me Softly), ‘Now for the ballet’ they crowed. Swan Lake with petits jetés, pirouettes and little swans. ‘And the opera’. Carmen. ‘The concert hall!’ Beethoven 5 and Mozart 40. Then Sheherezade and the Bumble Bee. Right hands were a mere blur like buzzing wings. Their skills, wit and joy in their own funniness still resonate with me weeks later. And they know their scores too.

Scepticism about the judgment of arranging Die Winterreise for two guitars was dispelled by the first notes from Oliver Fartach-Naini and Lee Song-Ou. Schubert played guitar, after all, so his piano accompaniments transferred easily from keyboard to fretboard. Much welcome legato from tenor Henry Choo. He told his stories and painted his pictures most eloquently, apparently ignoring the distraction of applause after every one of the 22 songs. [3]

Before the Schubert, Slava Grigoryan and his brother Leonard played Tchaikovsky’s The Seasons, arranged for them from the original piano pieces by their father, Edward. Being no purist on the practice of arrangements, preferring to judge each example by its merits, I was swayed to the view that the guitar is probably the instrument least likely to offend in this regard. Swan Lake and Carmen from the Vignola duo were Hoffnung stuff. The Seasons and Winterreise were – well, different.

Australian composers were well represented in the AIGF.

Timothy Kain celebrated 25 years of his quartette Guitar Trek with three works by his compatriots, two of them written for the ensemble. The piquancy of Phillip Houghton’s picturesque, atmospheric News from Nowhere was enhanced by his scoring for treble, standard, baritone and bass guitars. So nice to learn something new. Ditto for Six Fish, by Nigel Westlake. Lovely, moody pieces – Guitarfish, Sunfish (really sunny), a floaty, fluttery Leafy Sea-dragon scored for two standards, 12-string and dobro. The transcriptions of Graeme Koehne’s beautiful chorale prelude on Morning Star (treble, two standards, baritone) and the Brahms highly pianistic Intermezzo both ached for a legato line. Guitar Trek’s audience knew when and when not to clap. No idea why. What a difference it made. And their programme notes acknowledged Australian luthiers, makers of their instruments.

Plenty of legato, and another Australian work in Quintette. The Australian String Quartet opened its arms to four illustrious guitar soloists in turn, First, Slava Grigoryan for Castelnuovo Tedesco’s Guitar Quintet op 43 – Spanish-influences everywhere, culminating in a blazing ‘Allegro con fuoco’. Simon Powys next with In Amber, Phillip Houghton’s pretty conceit likening a fossil immortalized in an orange coffin with sounds in string instruments waiting to be brought to life. Cf. Michelangelo.

Ana Vidovic had the stage to herself, and the audience at her feet, for her solo Asturias by Albeniz ­– rich, immeasurably warm sound, pppp where no-one dared breathe – followed by the fiery ‘Fandango’ from Boccherini’s Quintette No. 4 in D major.

Leo Brouwer’s settings of Beatles classics (Yesterday, Eleanor Rigby) let Edin Karamazov show what a bit of rubato and a lot of tenderness can do when applied with good taste.

To their credit, the ASQ coped admirably with the range of styles, and like Henry Choo, appeared unfazed by the happy clappers who might have derailed them after every movement.

The next generation of players was allowed generous airspace.

Timothy Kain’s master class with 14 year old Miles Johnston took the lad’s de Falla apart, analyzed its harmony, found inner voices, played around with appoggiaturas and treated the piece like clay to be moulded into the most expressive, most beautiful shape.

More tyros in Guitarissimo, Oliver Fartach-Naini’s best ten (one girl) Elder Conservatorium students.

Over the four days and evenings more than 20 hopefuls from all around the world competed for their 15 Minutes of Fame before what must have been a daunting eight-member panel of local and international judges that included Ana Vidovic and Aleksandr Tsiboulski. From the eight finalists (four Australian) the panel chose Andrey Lebedev, born in Moscow, nurtured at the Elder Conservatorium, now 21 and studying with Timothy Kain at ANU. He won $16,000 worth of guitar made by Jim Redgate with his Bach and Ginastera. He says it is like being in a Ferrari after a Ford.

Nothing but Flamenco would do for the Festival finale, half and half home-grown and imported. Florian Remus culled Australia for the best exponents of this irresistible fusion of guitar, percussion, voice, dance and exotic costumes; Jason McGuire brought singer Yaelisa and Caminos Flamencos Dancers from San Francisco for a spectacular reminder of one of the reasons for the guitar’s universal appeal. Runner-up was Stephanie Jones, also at ANU.

By catering for all tastes, Grigoryan was able to make his Festival viable, and came in with a 25% increase in box office takings on his 2010 event. He will be in charge again in 2014.

With a bit of education, the punters may be weaned off preferences for very loud, very fast, very simple, very showy (John Scofield Trio, Emmanuel and his stomp board) music and discover the joys of subtlety and complexity.

Ana Vidovic, Timothy Kain and Henry Choo did it.


Elizabeth Silsbury is Adjunct Senior Lecturer at Flinders University of SA. She sat on the first Music Board, Australia Council from 1973-76, and was a member of the Board of Directors of The Australian Opera 1977-94, a record she holds with Robin Gibson of Brisbane. She is Chief Music Critic of The Advertiser, Adelaide, SA correspondent for Opera (London), and writes also for Music Forum.

[1] Recent research reports that pop songs are becoming progressively more limited in their harmonies. Surprise, surprise.

[2] Both being acoustically challenged, all performances were amplified.

[3] Douglas Gautier, CEO of the Festival Centre, has responded sympathetically to my suggestions for educating audiences about applause, audio and visual recordings and taking glasses (plastic, but !!!) of wine into the auditorium during performances.