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guitar festival for gendai


OCT 20-23, 2008

 By Stephen Brookes 703 660-6591


Washington, DC has been a center for international diplomacy for decades.  But it’s also a growing center for cultural diplomacy, where a global exchange of ideas in art and music takes place.  While there are frequent concerts and exhibitions at embassies around town, one of the most important and ambitious new events is the annual  Ibero-American Guitar Festival – which puts a spotlight on the best of new guitar music from Latin America, Spain, and Portugal.

Sponsored by the Association of Ibero-American Cultural Attaches (with artistic direction by the well-known Paraguayan guitarist Berta Rojas), this year’s festival was held October 20-23, and brought 17 performers to the campus of George Washington University for four days of concerts and master classes.  Some of Latin America’s most interesting rising young guitarists were present, and their concerts showed how rich and varied Latin music is today, in every genre from classical to flamenco and beyond.

“The guitar is the unifying instrument of Latin America,” says Magdalena Duhagon, a DC-based Uruguayan guitarist who is the assistant director of the festival. “Latin culture is very present in the guitar, and the repertoire is big. But audiences in the United States are not familiar with the repertoire – many are hearing it for the first time.”

The guitar, of course, is at the heart of Latin music. Many of Latin America’s best-known composers – Agustin Barrios Mangore, to name just one – were also accomplished guitarists, and the instrument is widely played in folk music across the continent.  Its influence has been so profound that it’s hard to imagine Latin American music without the guitar.

But Latin guitar music is still largely unheard in North America. Composers such as Astor Piazzola and Leo Brouwer have become well known, but the festival gave audiences a chance to hear lesser-known guitarist-composers like Paulo Bellinati and Maximo Diego Pujol.  The programs were adventurous, and many of the performers explored the connections between new Latin music and its roots, from the rhythms of Andalusia, to the timbres of Andean folk music and the song-like melodies of the Caribbean.

Most of the events of the festival were held in the Jack Morton Auditorium of George Washington University – an intimate venue with fine acoustics, dramatic lighting and seating limited to about 250, near perfect for guitar concerts.  But the hallway outside was an equally interesting place to be, as it was set up with an exhibit on the life of the great Venezuelan guitar pioneer Alirio Diaz, who came to the festival for the first few days.

“Music is my life, and I’m so happy to be here to share it with you,” he said at the festival’s opening reception, as he spoke with fans, diplomats and friends.  At 84, Diaz is still an active teacher and performer, and the exhibit testified to the impact of his life.  Letters and photographs from his early years, when he studied with Andres Segovia, were mixed in with programs and concert posters from a spectacular career that took him to Paris, London, New York, Tokyo, Rome and beyond.

One admirer asked him how old he was when he first took up the guitar. “I don’t remember,” said Diaz, laughing.  “I think I was born with a guitar in my hands.”

Diaz was an important influence on hundreds of his students – including Sharon Isbin, who was there to open the festival’s first night. Isbin, who heads Julliard’s guitar department, stuck largely to familiar Latin works, including Francisco Tarrega’s “Recuerdos de la Alhambra” and Leo Brouwer’s “The Black Decameron.” Isbin is a rather cerebral player, but her sophistication and genuine love of the music were clear, and her performance reached a peak when she was joined her onstage by Brta Rojas for Gentil Montana’s engaging “El Porro.”

It was an exciting start to the Festival, and more was to come. Four performers played each evening (with more concerts and master classes during the day), offering a mix of styles that changed from set to set.  Nearly all the region’s countries were represented, with each performer displaying different sides of Ibero-American guitar culture.

Electric jazz-rocker Federico Miranda, for example, played sections of his “Baula Project” (focusing on endangered leatherback turtles in his native Costa Rica), while Uruguay’s Marco Sartor contrasted the baroque-flavored music of Domenico Scarlatti with composers like Abel Fleury, and Juan Falu – perhaps Argentina’s best-loved guitarist – provided his own signature brand of sophisticated folk music.

Edgy rock was provided by Ramses Barrientos -- a Honduran composer whose cherry-red electric guitar and glinting eyebrow ring immediately set him apart from the festival’s more traditional players , while Antonio Chaino (one of the masters of the Portuguese guitar, a round-body instrument with twelve steel strings and a short neck) pulled a quavering, almost voice-like tone out of the guitar – perfect for poignant works like “Sonhar Lisboa” and “Rhapsodia Fadista” that are rooted in the melancholy Portuguese folk music called fado.

Next came flamenco guitarist Abraham Carmona.  Born into a gypsy family in Seville, Carmona has roots in tradition but is a modern internationalist, blending jazz, tango, bossa nova and even Asian elements into his playing. Opening with a few traditional bulerias (including “Mariposa” by Manuel Molina), he devoted most of the set to his with his own songs, joined later by the fine Argentinean bandoneon player Juan Pablo Jofre in music that summoned up sultry tangos in smoky, late night dance halls.

The next day opened with a midday concert of music from 17th century Bogotá by the Colombian group Musica Ficta, and some new Ecuadorian music played by guitarist Rene Zambrano. Despite a rather serious, stolid demeanor, Zambrano put on a very sensitive, lyrical performance of works like Carlos Silva’s Baroque-flavored “El Ultimo Beso,” and several pieces by Carlos Bonilla, including the beautiful and quietly dramatic “Preludio y Yumbo.”

That was followed by music from the Dominican Republic, in a set by Rafael Scarfullery. This fine guitarist (named “best classical instrumental player” in his home country) played perhaps the most overtly romantic set of the festival, with lighthearted music like Miguel Pichardo’s jazzy “Dos Caprichos” and Román Peña’s “Otoño” and “Vals Criollo.”

The award-winning Bolivian guitarist Marcos Puña, playing a ten-string guitar, brought a lot of sly wit to a set that featured new works including “Leyenda” and “Por tu senda (Bailecito)” by Alfredo Dominguez – two pieces of rare beauty – as well as stylish works from the Brazilian composer-guitarist Paulo Bellinati and the Bolivian composer Matilde Casazola, 

El Salvador’s Jorge Sanabria opened the final day of the festival with the music of Antonio Lauro and Agustin Barrios, as well as several Salvadoran composers. He gave a driving, impassioned account of the “Toccata Criolla” by Carlos Payes, and played Rafael Olmedo Artiga’s “Tres piezas intimas” with deep expressive detail, but a light, brainless waltz by the early 20th century composer David Granadino didn’t add much to the program.

The Peruvian guitarist Maria Luisa Harth-Bedoya has an open, expressive personality, and it shows in her playing. Most of her set came from her new CD “Ayres de Lima,” and was a delight. Opening with César Angeleri’s upbeat “Desde Lima,” she also played the fascinating “Sons de Carrilhoes”(by the Brazilian Joao de Pernambuco), and works from Ariel Ramírez and Héctor Ayala.  But it may have been her interpretations of “Preludio No. 1” and “Choros No.1” by Heitor Villa-Lobos -- poetic and full of elegant mysteries -- that impressed the most.

Then came of the most daring and satisfying performances of the whole festival. Francisco Bibriesca is one of Mexico’s top guitarists, but instead of trying to impress the crowds with lightning virtuosity, he played an hour-long program of quiet, profoundly inward-looking pieces from his “Blue Road Tour” program. Playing with zen-like stillness, he explored works by Bellinati, Pujol and Marco Vinicio Camacho with deeply focused power and impact.

 Two young female guitarists opened the festival’s last night of concerts.  Colombia’s Irene Gomez – looking resplendent in a flowing red gown – put on a colorful performance featuring works by the Haitian composer Amos Coulanges (including an evocative piece called “Nan Fon Bwa,” which incorporated a wonderful snare drum effect), the poignant “Cacao” by Juan Carlos Guío, and two exceptional works by Jesús Emilio González.  Gomez played them all with a delicate touch, showing herself to be a musician of subtle poetic power.

The most famous Paraguayan composers may be Agustin Barrios and Jose Asuncion Flores, and Paraguay’s Luz Maria Bobadilla focused on their work.  But she played her own skillful arrangement of Barrios’ “Danza Paraguaya,” adding wildly colorful effects and well-chosen ornamentation, in a convincing and original account.  A smile-inducing performance of Andras Bobadilla’s “Rancho Elsa,” and an updated version of Flores’s classic 1940 “India” (in the “guarania” style he created) added to Bobadilla’s fine set.

For the last two performances of the festival, though, the focus shifted to folk music – where the roots of much classical Latin music are found. The engaging young Brazilian composer Cacai Nunes has made a specialty of the 10-string guitar known as the "Viola Caipira," widely used as a folk instrument in Brazil, and played a number of his own works, which were steeped in folk rhythms and had a playful, almost improvisatory feeling.

And it was fascinating to hear the complex sonorities of his steel-stringed instrument -- though it did require frequent tuning.   “We have a saying in Brazil,” Nunes joked, in Portuguese. “Half the time the guitarist is tuning, and the other half he’s playing out of tune.”

The festival ended as strongly as it began, with an entertaining and virtuosic performance by Juan Falu, perhaps Argentina’s most respected folk musician.  A charismatic performer with an encyclopedic knowledge of his country’s music, Falu performed several traditional works with humor and down-to-earth directness. But it was his own music – sophisticated and compelling -- that made the deepest impression, and seemed to reflect both where Latin music has been, and where it was going – much like the festival itself.



Posted on Tuesday, November 11, 2008 at 09:43AM by Registered CommenterStephen Brookes | CommentsPost a Comment | References1 Reference

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