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Symposium 2007 - A guitarist's and a composer's Paradise!

by Rolf Straver, Nijmegen, Netherlands

A few personal impressions by a new Dutch participant

Sometimes life may give you a nice surprise offering, very unexpectedly, new great opportunities you always had been completely unaware of. Half a year ago, surfing on the internet, I had such a lucky day. I was thinking about composing my first multi-guitar piece so I was looking for some Duo or Trio that I might work with. Thus I came across the Amadeus Duo - Dale Kavanagh and Thomas Kirchhoff - who apparently were very active not only as musicians but, after a few curious mouseclicks, also in organising an annual world wide and world class event: the Iserlohn Guitar Symposium. ( see http://www.guitarsymposium.de ) An event so phantastic that many participants, if they have the opportunity, seem to come back to every year. I decided in an impulse to enrol for this discovery

The event was scheduled for the beginning of August. Although I, as a newcomer, was warmly welcomed, I noticed from the very first day that the Iserlohn Symposium is also a festive get together of a large, world wide community of guitarists (about 150 participants and 30 teachers from 45 countries) who seem to know each other well from the past years and who are delighted to celebrate meeting again. I know now that next time in 2008 I will feel the same

There were four types of guitarists at the symposium: First of all, our teachers. All of them absolutely top of the bill. Some of them I already knew as living legends, like Pepe Romero. Others I did not know yet (shame on me!), although they are eminent authorities on their overseas continent, having educated generations of great guitarists. There were also younger teachers who only recently started their concert career, but in a dazzling rhythm: they all posessed an impressive row of first prizes in several of the leading guitar competitions and had played in the great concert halls all over the world.
The second group of guitarists: those promising people who sooner or later will move into the group just mentioned, but who still have to win some competition and to break through. Also experienced guitarists who have chosen to devote their skills and art mainly to teaching. And last but not least in this category: some very accomplished but also multi-talented guitarists who eventually made their career in a completely different profession, like the remarkably talented Duo Cataln who are colleagues as law specialists at a German Ministry.

Then there was a third large group of music students, still in the process of developing their talents. This year there was a merry 'invasion' from Belgium thanks to enthusiastic promotion at the conservatoire by one of them. I was part of the smallest category: the ambitious amateur player, who likes to play the great repertoire -on a less brilliant level- for the sheer joy of playing Bach or Villa Lobos. But I have my personal goals too: composing for the guitar. My purpose was more to get fresh ideas for new works, to discover new playing techniques, to hear new sound effects. And I got more than I ever expected!
All these different people worked, lived and partied together for one week, regardless of your abilities on the guitar.

One of the possible activities to take part in, was playing in the ensemble, for me the perfect occasion to learn on the spot about the particular orchestration of a transparent multi-guitar composition. There were two ensembles one led by Frank Gerstmeier, the other by Gerald Garcia. I was in Gerald's ensemble. He composes every year a new piece for Iserlohn and it was a revelation to me to hear how beautiful an orchestra of guitars can sound. Quite a few of us had no experience in playing in a such a big ensemble and to be conducted: the Maestro had a hard job to have us all play pp at the same moment, make a crescendo evenly or just LOOK at the conductor The piece we played was not extremely difficult, for it had 6 parts so we did not have to play complex polyphonic music on one instrument. For me, not being used to play in an orchestra, the most difficult part of the pieces were the moments that I did NOT play! Counting silent beats for nine and a half bar in a piece that you do not know yet demands a lot of concentration and it occurred twice that I started too quickly. In a loud tutti nobody would have noticed, but the first piece, "Chinese whispers", was very soft and impressionistic, with harmonics and tambora But since Gerald is a comedian with an admirable talent for speaking "Germglish", it was also sometimes fun to tease him, so that he could play the "great, eccentric conductor driven mad by his clumsy players".
But after a week, at the student's recital in the Oberste Stadkirche, our performance, with the Eden-Stell duo as soloists, sounded great

Besides these daily rehearsals I took part in master classes. A tremendous honour for an amateur to have lessons with all these guitar heroes. I got precious advice not only for the interpretation of the pieces I played, but also for my filing my nails in a slightly different shape. The effect was astonishing, a piece of advice worth the trip to Iserlohn! The master classes were very educational, whether you were the "victim" or just watching them. For me as a composer too. And often they were really funny. I remember Matt Cochran's imitation of the facial expressions and the "choreography" one student was making playing a placid Bach prelude as if he was conducting a climactic moment in a Mahler symphony:
Another daily activity was finger aerobics, invented by Dale Kavanagh. A very methodical guitar fitness program with all the mathematical possibilities of finger movements. It was an fabulous idea to do this in a group for one hour. Such finger dexterity exercises are tiresome to do all by yourself, but with other people (and the merry company of Thomas' and Dale's little dog) it is fun to do and time really flies then. The stretching exercises for the left hand with the slurs and hammering , who started very easily in the ninth position, turned out to be more and more demanding the moment you are approaching the more widely spaced lower positions. As a composer I liked the strange chromatic motives that we produced. Maybe one day these exercises will even give me inspiration for a set of studies

A part from having or watching master classes, attending rehearsals and finger aerobics we could try out new hand built guitars, some of them very innovative. I just bought a new guitar recently so I spent a lot of my time browsing the huge stocks of sheet music and CD's brought to the symposium by Chanterelle and Trekel Haus der Musik. There was also a new American Music Publisher, Clearnote, who was interested in my music and who already published very interesting new scores like the guitar quartet "Feast for Tantalus" by The piece was also on our concert program, played by the famous American Tantalus quartet so it was very interesting to study the music before. In my enthusiasm I bought so many new scores every time, that I had to ask the shopkeeper not to let me in anymore the last day!

Of course all these active days had relaxing breaks at exactly the right moment with tasty meals, superb buffets and the typical German Kaffee mit Kuchen (coffee and cake). Moments during which we were talking in many languages not only about nails and strings, but also exchanging funny anecdotes. The excellent breakfasts made it a real pleasure to get up again after a long night of after-concert partying. Let me just tell you this: normally the hotel version of a bowl of muesli is just some cereals with milk or yoghurt; here it was full of fresh tropical fruits, rasped almonds, you could add whipped cream if you liked, and so on. We really should call Monsieur Michelin to nominate the Haus Ortlohn catering service for a star! I am still wondering how Thomas Kirchhoff manages to offer us all this for such a remarkably low tuition fee. Excellent accommodation and meals, four masterclasses by top artists, twelve free teacher's concerts...

After an active nine to five day program and a tasty buffet we all went down town for the concerts. For some of them I already had great expectations because I knew the artists from CDs or TV broadcastings. And it was indeed a life time experience to listen to and also SEE Pepe Romero or the Katona Twins playing. Unavoidably such electrifying concerts, who were open to a general public, ended with long standing ovations. When the artists finally disappeared from the stage, the applause just could not stop! It became more energetic and rhythmical, calling them back several times for encores. They visibly enjoyed it: the encores were again another highlight of the recital, in stead of a dreamy tranquil piece to give us a cooling down

The concerts were also an occasion to discover new rising stars. For example, I never heard before the Perroy-Jouve duo from France; I did not even know their names. Now I am very happy to know these young miraculous guitarists whose reputation will spread quickly to all corners of the globe. If I will not compose a duo for them I will at least buy all their CD's! When you compose guitar music it is exciting to have the opportunity to meet these fine musicians again the very same evening with a beer. Or to make plans for a future project with them in Mexico.



But even without these ambitious plans the Iserlohn experience would already have been a success, just for the nice atmosphere, especially at the after-concert parties where members of the Baltic Guitar Quartet are trying a Mexican dance (see the photo below) or where you can sing a fado with Portuguese friends? Where can you make new friends from not less than 45 countries?

The Iserlohn Guitar Symposium (I would rather say Festival!) was really a revelation and I want to thank Thomas Kirchhoff for this great initiative and his flawless organization: everything was exactly on time ("pnktlich") and perfect, he had thought about all the aspects. from the logistics of getting us and all our instruments to our concert, to decorating the venues with photos from last year and flags of all our countries Really German management style, but with a flexibility and a merry mood as if we all were in Italy

Next year, 2008, the Symposium will take place from 3 to 10 August. I already put the dates in my agenda!

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