The 1993 Guitar Foundation of America International Festival and Competition, or “Celebrations and Discoveries”, was probably one of the most epic guitar conventions of all time. It lives on in history through the minds of those that were present.
Those attending the festival were treated to a whirlwind of recitals, masterclasses, workshops, panel discussions, and lectures. These events were staggered so that, in theory, a diligent registrant could attend every single one. In practice, however, this became impractical because in order to do so one would have had to miss the drama of the preliminary, semifinal, and final rounds of the annual competition and the displays of 25 different suppliers to the guitar trade who had set up a giant Vendor’s Fair, both of which were going on simultaneously with the festival events. Host for “Celebrations and Discoveries”, which was held October 21-25, was the music department of the State University of New York at Buffalo.
The scope of the festival activities was made even larger by the substantial number of University students and faculty, plus Buffalo music lovers who were drawn to the many performances. This was particularly true of the five evening concerts, which might fairly be considered the backbone of the festival.
Good planning was in evidence everywhere. For those “backbone” recitals, for example, there was clear recognition that even for a large convention of guitarists and guitar mavens, a little leavening was needed in what would otherwise be a succession of five straight guitar recitals. Taking this principle to heart, the first evening concert was given over to guitarist Nicholas Goluses and flutist Bonita Boyd, two Eastman School of Music faculty members. The duo made a profound impression with Joan Tower’s 1983 Snow Dreams, a disjunct, episodic work, now chattery, now lyrical, that leaves an afterimage of swirling motions. In a nod to Segovia, Goluses played Ponce’s Variations and Fugue on Folia de Espana in a technically adept manner while illuminating its quieter regions with subtle colors. The recital by Eduardo Fernandez could be considered a town-gown affair, co-sponsored by the festival, the host University, and Buffalo’s premier presenting organization, the QRS Arts Foundation. Fernandez responded with a program uncharacteristic of most guitar recitals. With four major multi-movement works spanning three centuries, it had the heft of, say, an Alfred Brendel piano recital. Gliding smoothly from the Bach Lute Suite in E minor and Sor’s Sonata No. 2 to the extended techniques demanded in Brouwer’s Sonata and Ginastera’s Sonata, Opus 47, Fernandez imbued everything along the way with a feeling of elegance and magisterial authority. Only his own fractured and seemingly purposeless Consecuencias left this listener unmoved. The recital itself suggested overlooked possibilities in programming with a somewhat heavier center of gravity than is the norm.
A break in the recital format was provided by the Baltimore Consort, which took the stage for an evening of authentic Renaissance diversion. Most of the music for soprano, lutes, Renaissance guitar, recorders, crumhorns, viols, and the like was taken from their hit recording with the too-cute title La Rocque ‘N’ Roll, and while long stretches seemed quite undifferentiated, other portions offered music of real distinction.
The concluding recital by the highly regarded David Russell came as something of a disappointment. Although he started strongly in works of Barrios, Rodrigo, and Hunt, the selections themselves presented a rather monochromatic front. And with Handel’s Suite No. 7, technical and interpretive problems surfaced, most naggingly in the artist’s failure to contrast the successive variations in the suite’s glorious concluding Passacaglia or even to heighten our expectation with strategic pauses before attacks.
But then there was the magnificent performance of Roberto Aussel to remember from the festival’s second evening. On the technical level, his playing was superbly precise rhythmically but never became stiff or metronomic; there was not a wrong note or even a hesitation, and on top of this I detected only one audible finger slide in the entire two-hour recital. When it came to making music out of notes, I was perhaps even more impressed. The shaping, weighting, and turning of his ornamentations seemed absolutely right. Articulation and animation of both rhythm and line were well-nigh perfect, and Aussel’s control of dynamics and color gave his playing a confidential intimacy that drew listeners forward in their seats. After a while the aura of near-perfection made me forget I was hearing a guitar–only pure music.
He played the Suite No. 25 by Sylvius Weiss, making this minor baroque figure sound like a rival of Bach. Music of Sor and Brouwer was elevated to a new level; and works of Obrovska, Oyens, and Campana that veered away from tonality and called for extraneous percussive effects were made to sound extremely idiomatic for the guitar.
While all this was going on, three rounds of the International Competition were taking place. And when the dust had settled, Keven Gallagher of Saddlebrook, New Jersey had the gold medal, a $2,000 cash award, a custom-crafted guitar from California luthier German Vazquez, a passel of concert bookings, including one at next year’s festival and another with Buffalo’s QRS Arts Foundation, and other perks.
By happy coincidence, the winner of the 1992 competition in New Orleans had been the young Buffalo guitarist Jason Vleaux. So when he had his afternoon recital the audience included a large number of his local friends. He rewarded them by displaying a good sense of rhythmic freedom, clean articulation, a lot of technical finesse, and a natural sensitivity for phrase shaping in works of Morel, Regondi, Bach, and Ponce.
In other non-prime-time events: a recital by Richard Savino on older-style baroque and classic guitars generated a lot of interest; a lecture by Richard Greene on the widely varying standards in guitar programs at North American colleges and conservatories was considered timely and provocative; and James Smith presented two hours’ worth of never-before-seen films and videotapes of Segovia master-classes spanning nearly 30 years.