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The Realities of Programming

2011 September 14
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by Giacomo Fiore

Fashioning a program out of distinct pieces is the necessary first step towards a successful performance, yet as a process it is often overlooked. Giving thought to “what to play” and “when to play it” can lead to more and often better gigs, such as those promoted by cultural associations and concert series. Perhaps even more importantly, a carefully constructed program enables you to turn your performance into a more meaningful listening experience for your audience. Think of it as your chance to make a point, to tell a story, to put things in a particular light through placement, pacing, and juxtaposition.
Today’s guitar field is replete with swarms of technically polished and musically inspired players. I would argue that by giving your next program a little more attention, you are improving your chances of standing out in the crowd.

Programming constraints and considerations

First off, it goes without saying that you shouldn’t lose track of external constraints when considering a recital program. If you need to put together 30 minutes of music for a junior recital, you probably shouldn’t spend 25 of them on an entire Bach cello suite. Undergraduate recitals tend to emphasize breadth before depth, and as much as I love complete works and big pieces, I would ultimately defer to departmental and teacher guidelines when preparing such a show. On the other hand, Master’s, and Doctoral recitals often encourage (if not altogether require) specialization and cohesion, so some of the things I’ll be talking about apply more properly to them.

Balancing a Performer’s Needs…

Programming is first and foremost a balancing act between what you can do and what you’d like to do. Consider the technical, musical and physical demands of your pieces as you put them together: by way of example, I prefer to start somewhat easy, but I’m confident enough in my physical and mental endurance not to be too worried of putting two longer pieces back-to-back. Through years of dealing with performance anxiety, I have discovered I can stay in the zone more easily than I can get into it—because of that, I prefer to arrange shorter pieces in suites (more on that later), as opposed to having to acknowledge applause between each of them. Another example: I don’t love to start with complex polyphonic or otherwise “mnemonically treacherous” music. That’s a personal preference, but I am aware of it and keep it in mind when choosing program order—adhering to a strict chronology is not necessarily the way to go, especially considering how complex and intricate a lot of Early Music can be. Through an honest assessment of your strengths and weaknesses as a performer, you can use program placement as an extra “lifeline” and make life on stage just a bit easier.

…with Your Audience’s Needs

Similar consideration should be given to those loving and supporting souls who chose to spend their evening listening to you. You should remember that your experience of the performance is going to be significantly different from theirs, and that although time is likely to fly by for you, it might feel more like it’s grinding to a halt to them (this is assuming the canonical, audience-sitting-in-silence, recital-hall kind of setting. Perhaps we’ll talk about bringing “classical” music to unexpected places another time.)

To cut to the chase: attention can be sustained for 40 minutes at best, a timeframe that’s likely to be shrinking in this age of sound bites and tweets. I try to keep my programs to two halves of 25-35 minutes of music, which usually translates to 45 minutes with tuning, bowing, and talking (you can and should talk; more later). The second half should be shorter, especially if you’re planning to play any encores.

Keeping this simple physiological tenet in mind gives me the confidence to present more complex and challenging music to my audiences. I’ve actually found that people react positively to all sorts of music once the proper context is in place and the pieces are presented with care—which also includes being mindful of the limits of the human attention.

In the next part of this article we will explore some components of a successful and communicative recital program.

Guitar Luminary Ron Purcell Has Passed Away

2011 September 12
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by Christopher Davis

Dr. Ron Purcell may not be a name young guitarists are familiar with, but everyone is familiar with his work. Most notably, Purcell was one of the folks responsible for the Guitar Foundation of America’s inception and he founded the guitar department at California State University Northridge. Purcell was also the director of the International Guitar Research Archive, wrote two books, regularly contributed to Soundboard and other guitar publications, and published numerous performance editions.

Steve Thachuk, one of Purcell’s personal friends, wrote a memorial piece about him on his blog.

Update: The GFA has a piece on Dr. Purcelle that includes dates/times for services.

Tantalus Quartet Welcomes a New Member

2011 September 12
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by Christopher Davis

The Tantalus Quartet just recently added a new member to their line up: guitarist Adam Foster. The full press release is below.

The Tantalus Quartet is thrilled to welcome Canadian guitarist Adam Foster as the newest member of Tantalus Quartet. Adam’s playing combines elegance and sensitivity as a result of study with guitar luminaries Alex Dunn, Ricardo Cobo, and Bruce Holzman. Adam specializes in chamber music, and is a passionate champion of music by living composers. He recently performed the American premiere of Stephen Dodgson’s Quintet for Guitar and Strings, and is an authority on the music of Hans Haug. Adam’s performing interests also extend to 8-course Renaissance Lute, French Theorbo, and Tenor Viol da Gamba.

Upcoming engagements for the Tantalus Quartet include the 2012 Iserlohn Guitar Symposium in Germany, 14th International Festival “Silesian Guitar Autumn” in Poland, a six-city tour of Panama, as well as performances throughout North America.

Tantalus Quartet is Kristian Anderson, Matthew Cochran, Adam Foster, and Stephen Mattingly.

The Modern Virtuosi & Why They’re Saving Us From Ourselves

2011 September 7
by Guest Poster

This is a guest post by Bradford Werner of Classical Guitar Canada.

There is a long-time traditional in the classical guitar world that “our instrument is hard,” or “classical guitar is an imperfect instrument but we do our best.” None of this is true. I used to say it to cover up my own insecurities but I learned my lesson. I tried learning violin once and THAT was hard. Just go to a local violin student recital and you’ll hear whole studios struggling with intonation and bowing technique. But they work on it for years and years under good teachers and with the influence of an extremely high level of international vitsuosos. They also enjoy the experience of learning and don’t blame their instrument. I think that can now be said for classical guitar as well. The past ten years have proved that. The GFA winners, particularly the youth winners are showing us that we are simply catching up to the high performance quality of other instruments. Here are some possible reasons why:

The Pedagogy

Resources and methodologies are abundant. Even if 90% of those resources are awful, competition has led to a rise in quality level. Also, in the past three years I’m finally seeing a slowing down of “do it yourself” methods and a move toward teacher-based resources. Even the RCM school in Canada has started to ease up on the heavy editorial fingering and left the upper level scales in their technique book unfingered completely. Also, the rise of ergonomics in connection with the modern “large” classical guitar size seems to be secure.

The Repertoire

If you look at the repertoire being played, most of it is repertoire that works well on the instrument. As much as I love the works of Ponce or the arrangements of piano music out there I feel guitarists, particularly students, need to choose a different style of repertoire based on the new access to scores and new compositions. Students need good sounding pieces that actually work well on the instrument. This sparks their interest and when it comes to students, a high success rate in the early stages of study will ensure their continuing efforts at the instrument and the willingness to take the time to learn a difficult work. These days I really prefer sending my students out with a Dyens, Brouwer, or even a silly little work I’ve written rather than a Bach lute suite movement or a Granados arrangement because I know rate of success in performance is different. Once they are hooked and have a strong foundation they can tackle everything.

Chamber Music

The internet has made an abundant amount of chamber music works available to everyone. Finally we are seeing kids play with other instruments which immediately raises their musical level…or at least awareness of it. It has also taken off the pressure of playing solo material which is often difficult and hard to perform and can actually lessen the ability to focus on musical elements like phrasing or articulation. String players at least have piano accompaniment a majority of the time leaving them with purely melodic material to enjoy. It is also a social aspect to music that can improve our lives and build lifelong friendships. Chamber music = happy musicians.

The Internet and the New High Level

YouTube has kicked everyone in the butt. Everyday I see a video that shows a high level technical proficiency and musical maturity. Those sayings like “our instrument is hard,” or “classical guitar is an imperfect instrument but we do our best,” just can’t stand up to the millions of talented, and more importantly, happy classical guitarist out there. Also, online content brings this high level to every small nowhere town and lets them learn by way of example.

What should we learn from this?

We need to learn to enjoy practicing well. Don’t be lazy with your technique and don’t give up. We now know that quality is possible for everyone, not just a talented few (I don’t believe in talent anyway). What we do know is that there are millions of happy, successful guitar students and professionals playing at the new level so shut up and join them. Down with negativity…long live the happy practicers!

Three Reasons Andrew York Wins at the Internet

2011 August 9
by Christopher Davis

Andrew York wins at the internet. I doubt he consciously made up a plan at how he was going to do that winning (perhaps I’m wrong), but there are several things we can learn from him.

1. He’s Everywhere (sort of)

York is on twitter, facebook, youtube (not 100% on that one) and reverb nation.

Not only does York have a presence on those sites, but he interacts. Ask him a question on Facebook and he’ll get back to you. Tweet about liking one of his pieces and he’ll retweet it. This is not hard: we’re all human (probably), and humans interact. Its what we do. But most people don’t do it it well online. They forget to talk back.

More importantly is where Andrew York is not. He’s not on LinkedIn. Nor does he spend time on Vimeo. If you’re one of those folks that likes to plan, plan to find out that some social media sites aren’t worth it. The place where you get to have the most conversations is the place to be. Sometimes that means Facebook sometimes it doesn’t. Be open.

2. He Actually Updates

York sends out a new Facebook Update or tweet at least a few times each week. He also doesn’t make the number one website mistake: York updates his site. He has a blog, and makes sure his tour schedule isn’t full of concerts from five years ago.

3. He Posts About Non Guitar Things

This is a fine line. If you’re a fan of the CG Blog on facebook, you’ll notice that I pretty much stick to guitar. When I update on behalf of the CG Blog however, I am not trying to be an individual. I’m trying to be an organization that specializes in delivering classical guitar news and information.

As an individual, you can and should post things that aren’t always related to what you’re marketing. In short, be a real person and it all works out.**

But Shouldn’t I just Practice?

Unfortunately, marketing yourself involves work and time — time spent away from practicing. So the argument that most musicians make, especially college aged aspiring musicians, is that they should just practice. After all, if you’re good at what you do the world stands up and takes notice, right?

Afraid not. No one cares if they don’t know about you. There are so many extremely good musicians in the world who are and will continue to be under the radar. If you play music for a living, you do it to share that music with others. Marketing yourself is one of the natural extensions of that desire to share. Andrew York isn’t afraid of marketing himself, and neither should you be.

And, Mr. York, if you happen to read this: thank you so much for what you do. I enjoy your updates and videos.

**You can friend me if you’d really like some WordPress, python, tech and marketing nerdery.

The Paris Guitar Duo in Columbus, GA

2011 July 28
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by Guest Poster

This is a guest review by Andy Jurik

Taking the stage after a brief delay due to nail issues, the Paris Guitar Duo nonetheless seemed calm and professional as they opened their concert at the 2011 GFA Convention. The duo, Judicaël Perroy and Jérémy Jouve, are both prize-winning French guitarists who program their repertoire with a special consideration for music from their native country. As such, the concert opened with a transcription of César Franck’s Prelude, Fugue et Variations op. 18, originally composed for organ. A sign of things to come, the group’s interpretation of the work was graceful and bit reserved, carefully colored and delicately handled as if to retain the cathedral-like atmosphere Franck initially envisioned for his piece.

François de Fossa’s transcription of Haydn’s Quartetto op. 2, no. 2 followed, exploiting the duo’s ability to act as perfect foils for one another. The arrangement’s charming voices and characteristics fit perfectly well within the guitar duo format, featuring virtuosic scale runs and whispered accompaniments that rang out utterly clear in the resonant acoustics of Legacy Hall at Columbus State University. As varied as their repertoire may be, the Haydn was a perfect example of the duo’s obvious love for 18th and 19th century music. The interaction between Perroy and Jouve was subtle and clipped, an obvious result of their refined communication. Again, the music was a bit reserved and somewhat subdued, yet the beauty of their playing resided in this, the delicate way in which they handle the gestures and the spirit of this music.

Napoléon Coste’s Grand Duo Concertant followed, building upon the drama an intensity of the concert’s atmosphere. This was the highpoint of the concert, the duo’s quintessential statement of their beloved French repertoire. Perroy and Jouve were purposeful throughout the piece as they built the music up into something truly special for the final movement’s dramatic conclusion. While alive and empowered, the performance still had traces of the cool reservation that had become the concert’s signature theme.

The final piece on the program, Giuliani’s arrangement of the Barber of Seville overture, fit perfectly in line with the duo’s musical personality. Any guitar arrangement of popular pieces runs the risk of sounding out of place with the material, almost like someone trying to fit into clothes far too big or small for the occasion. Nonetheless, the duo handled the material with responsibility and grace, interpreting the famous lines and gestures guitaristically rather than operatically, making the music work for the instrument rather than forcing the guitar to speak in an unnatural manner. Jouve in particular shined in this final piece, exploiting a light touch that spoke volumes more than an exaggerated accent would have. Their encore, the third movement from Gnatalli’s Suite Retratos, returned to the space and lush atmosphere displayed in the Franck.

In a sense, the Paris Guitar Duo are utterly romantic and respectful players. They don’t attempt to transcend the guitar’s abilities but rather exploit the instrument’s gentle nature to color their repertoire, pushing the dynamics only when the music truly begs for a demanding voice. Their contemporaries may enhance the drama and the dance of the format’s repertoire, but Perroy and Jouve prefer to let the music speak for itself, interpreting more like narrators than actors.

Johannes Möller in Columbus, GA

2011 July 27
by Guest Poster

This is a guest review by Andy Jurik

The winner of last year’s GFA competition in Texas, Johannes Möller’s performance in Columbus, Georgia was in anticipation of his upcoming tour booked in conjunction with his victory. Unlike most winners of past GFA conventions, however, Möller presents a program comprised in great part of his own compositions. More than a vanity project, his music has already been compiled for an album release, as well as publication by Les Productions d’Oz. Judging from the balance of repertoire in his program, Möller appears ready to present himself as a self-sufficient artist.

Opening his concert with Song to the Mother Möller expressed a decidedly tonal side of his work. While thick with modern space and atmosphere, the work retained diatonic and folk-styled elements, leaning more towards accessibility while still retaining contemporary sensibilities and phrasing. Moments of serenity were balanced with rhapsodic gestures, all the while conveyed with a very purposeful, lyrical touch. Brave in introducing his concert with his own composition, he displayed honest extensions of his musical personality as opposed to flagrant showmanship.

Möller’s next two pieces were the only ones in the program he did not compose, a momentary detour into his facility as strictly an interpreter. Lamento-Scherzo by Denis Gougeon was the set piece from last year’s competition, and Möller’s performance conveyed the meaning he still finds in the material rather well. Much like his opening number, his control of the music’s modern atmosphere was virtuosic in its sparseness and feel, characterized by a fluid touch and delicate contrasts of color. Perhaps the least accessible work on his program, Möller did his best to give gesture and shape to the agitated moments of the scherzo section.

Sueño en la Floresta by Agustin Barrios followed, introduced with his anecdote of hearing the piece performed in Buenos Aires and being captivated with the idea that Barrios composed the piece while longing for the comfort of his homeland. For such a lush, romantic piece Möller seemed a bit restrained as he eschewed rubato for a more regulated sense of pulse. Nonetheless, his steady control and touch well complimented the music’s personality. The only non-modern piece on the program, his performance seemed to reflect his fascination and respect for the music rather than a mastery of toying with his musical options.

Poem to a Distant Fire followed, returning to his graceful modern sensibilities as a composer. Inspired by the image of trees encircled by surrounding fog in his native Sweden, Poem challenged the audience with its excessive silence and stillness, both evocative and ambiguous. Rather impressionistic, the piece was saturated with a calm accessibility throughout the balanced peaceful and chaotic moments. Currently available on his Naxos cd, Poem will serve as a calling card to his musical sensibilities.

Closing his concert was Ananda, a Sanskrit word equating to “universal love.” A deeply Indian/Raga flavor drove the music, featuring exotic lines slinking underneath a growling drone. The soft-aggressive-soft flow of the modern compositions became a theme throughout his performance, yet it cannot be denied that Möller has discovered a programmatic format that works well for his abilities. His taste clearly focuses towards modern works, and while some may find this narrow-minded, it’s an undeniable fact that Möller has found his trademark as a young concert artist.

Möller is in a unique position. His success as a musician is tied with his prowess as a serious composer, and his upcoming tour will promote his career as an all-inclusive artist. Modern yet still accessible, Möller’s display of innovation and interpretation were bold and refreshing to see in a GFA competition winner on the cusp of a promising career.

Irina Kulikova plays Tedesco

2011 July 25
by Christopher Davis

Yesterday’s post about competition winners included a video of a piece by Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco. Naturally, I was sucked into Youtube for a chunk of time and came across this video of Tedesco’s concerto in D major. The soloist is Irina Kulikova. If you like what you hear, check out Irina’s Guitar Recital CD from Naxos.

2011 Ligita Competition Winners

2011 July 24
by Christopher Davis

The The Liechtensteiner Gitarrentage was held July 2-9, 2011 in Liechtenstein. Each round was, for the most part, free choice. During the second, however, competitors had to include one piece by Bach; during the final round, a piece by Regondi was required. The first prize winner received a 5,000 Euro prize, a concert guitar, several concert invitations, and several other items. Third prize was 1,000 Euro prize, strings, and a sheet music voucher.

The Winners

First Prize: Marko Topchii (Ukraine)
Second Prize: Not awarded
Third Prize: Samuel Toro Pérez (Austria)

Watch Winner Marko Topchii Play

2011 Sierra Nevada Guitar Competition Winners

2011 July 19
by Christopher Davis

The Sierra Nevada Guitar Competition was held July 14-17, 2011 in Olympic Valley, California. Each of the three rounds of the competition was free choice with a slight variation: each subsequent round had to include a piece not played during the previous round(s). The grand prize was $1,000USD.

The Winners

First Prize: Edel Munoz
Second Prize: Paul Psarras
Third Prize: Matthew Fish
Fourth Prize: Ramon Fermin

Edel Munoz & Matanya Ophee

Matanya Ophee & Winner Edel Munoz

Watch Winner Edel Munoz Play