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Symposium 2008 - A personal review

by Rolf Straver the Netherlands

Past Summer I had my second experience with this great multi-faceted festival. I discovered it last year and was completely astonished then to see what Thomas Kirchhof from the Amadeus Guitar Duo managed to offer to the guitar passionado, during one week, for the modest amount of 530 Euros: four personal master classes, ensemble playing, Dale Kavanaghs daily finger aerobics, yoga-lessons, medical massage, eleven concerts, excellent meals and accomodation, expositions by guitar builders and music publishers and maybe the biggest pleasure of all: the opportunity to meet thirty great masters and some hundred fifty fellow guitarists from all corners of the globe, in a nice atmosphere. The evening parties could last for long after midnight So, even before I went home, I already had taken the decision to make Iserlohn a new personal Summer tradition. Being a composer in the first place, my focus was on discovering new music and playing techniques as a source of inspiration for my own compositions, and |I must say it worked very well the months following the festival. I wrote several large compositions dedicated to Iserlohn friends. Besides that, one gets automatically involved in a spontaneous post-Iserlohn concert series as many participants make new friends and invite each other during the year to other places abroad.

Iserlohn 2008 (3-10 August) was for me a twin event as it was preceded seamlessly by the Biennal Guitar Competition, held at the same place during the end of July. So I took the opportunity to attend and watch the Guitar Competition, as a prelude to the Symposium. Although the two events were meant to be separate, quite a few active participants also stayed for the Festival. I did not notice any change of ambiance after the switch was made: the competition had a relaxed and merry atmosphere as if it were already the festival. I begin to think this is maybe, unlike piano or violin competitions, a special quality of the classical guitar community.

Attending the competition rounds was a twofold pleasure: one the one hand you could enjoy the performance of excellent guitar music, sometimes in fresh interpretations, on the other hand there was the exciting question of who would be selected for the next round Like everybody I tried to imagine myself in the role of the jury members, ranking and rating all these promising guitar talents. The more the competition proceded, the more difficult it was to make a choice. Painful dilemmas: a flawless, but safe standard interpretation or an adventurous one, with a slight mistake or a loss of control for a split second what counts most? Should we, in the end, also take into consideration the artists contact with the audience, the way (s)he behaves on stage? Some candidates played tremendously well the most demanding works without losing the audience, showing their pleasure in playing the music, and even sometimes flirting with them with a surprising new outfit four each round! As a Dutchman I could be proud of our Irina Kulikova (Russian-born but from the Hague) winning the first prize with a sparkling Rodrigo performance. But I was equally happy with the other finalists, the flamboyant Serbian Sabrina Vlaskalic (2nd prize) and ex aequo 3rd prize winners Florian Larousse and Thomas Csaba from Paris, two very young talents studying with Judical Perroy, who collects - may the reader forgive me this personal tip- competition winners by the dozen.

The day after the competition finals the participants of the symposium arrived, often an exchange of hugs and kisses as quite a few of them come back regularly to this big festival. Not only the newcomers but also the habitus of the Guitar Symposium were very pleased with the degree of comfort and luxury in the new venue, Haus Villigst, a large and modern congres center combined with a beautiful old palace and courtyard, idyllically situated in a park on the banks of the river Ruhr. I had an excellent room, with a balcony and a private bathroom with a powerful high-tech massage shower that was a daily delight. The modern buildings all had this typical German technicity like automatically opening doors (very practical when you carry your guitar case, music stand and foot stool to the classrooms) and these solidly constructed windows, that you can open both vertically and horizontally (not practical for clumsy foreigners not used to all this sophistication).

As the congres center was quite remote from the concert venues in Iserlohn, we went there in specially hired city busses. The concert evenings, featuring our teachers, were a life time experience: some of the great Maestros I already heard before like The Los Angeles Guitar Quartet, Aniello Desiderio, Andrea Vettoretti, David Russell; others were a discovery not to say a revelation: I never expected comical effects and funny faces in a recital, but this was Pavel Steidl! An outstanding personality who gave an entertaining and humouristic combination of effortless virtuosity and fun on the classical guitar. One evening the Italian Duo Caputo-Pompilio showed a dashing exploit in playing by heart the entire cycle of Bachs Goldberg Variations: 50 minutes of complex fugues and canons, sometimes with passage work of extreme speed. In one word a heavenly concert in the Iserlohn Stadtkirche; we all should have listened to it on our knees Another evening the very same church had an entirely different atmosphere with, once again, an Italian Duo: Giampaolo Bandini (guitar) and Cesare Chiachiaretta (bandoneon) playing tango nuevo. The stage had scanty red and orange lighting, evoking burning flames of passion and you really could imagine you were now in a smoky Argentinian caf. The melancholic sound of the bandoneon combined perfectly with the guitar, but its volume could be ten times more in powerful chords as well. Profoundly emotional and passionate playing, and I sometimes feared for Giampaolos guitar!

It was a very good idea, by the way, to give us, guitarists, the opportunity to have or watch masterclasses with bandeonist Cesare. Such classes are less focussed on playing technique, but more on musicality and interpretation and all the more interesting. But both aspects can be ingredients of a masterclass. I had one with Hubert Kaeppel about Bachs Prelude, Fugue and Allegro that I will never forget: in only one lesson I learned a new way to execute trills and also some interesting mathematics about the structure of the prelude, called by Hubert Gods telephone number. It came in very useful for the proper places to change tone colour in the piece.

The final student and ensemble concert in the Stadkirche was again a pleasure to take part in. Given the large number of participants, there were two ensembles. Gerald Garcia, the eminent and prolific house composer of the festival, wrote Piet, an effective piece for choir and guitar orchestra; the composer-of-this-year was Alfonso Montes. A few weeks before I already received the PDF of my part of the score of his Salsa mutations. It was full of syncopations and rests and I really wondered what this strange music would be. When we played it together for the first time under the composers baton, it turned out to be a swinging latin piece! After just four rehearsals our ensemble could play it perfectly. The final concert ended with a double surprise: first the fabulous Baltic Guitar Quartet, joined by our evening entertainer Chris Ruebens and the twin sisters dHoest. They took us in with a recently discovered Rondo in e flat minor(!) for Guitar Septet, composed by Maurizio Carulli, son of the well-known composer it turned out to be Metallica- and then, as a culminating final round, Thomas and Dales little daughter Melissa in an effervescent dance and song performance.

I wrote this article in October, still very busy with the pleasures of the Iserlohn 2008 follow up: receiving and mailing pictures, exchanging music, visiting new guitarists abroad to attend their concerts, and waiting for my new guitar that is being built in Belgium. Indeed, buying a new guitar is always a difficult process of weighing choices. The Iserlohn symposium, with so many guitar makers, is a perfect place to test a wide variety of guitars yourself, and listen to advice by fellow guitarists and great masters.

Last but not least: one of the best things that the festival brought to me was this fortunate proposal by the duo Caputo-Pompilio to compose a Quartet for guitar duo, violin and cello. I started composing it immediately after the festival, just in time for the Competition of the Italia Guitar Society were it was the winning piece. Thanks Iserlohn! I will be back next year!

Program in 2009 (Aug. 9th to Aug 16th) will include John Williams and John Etherridge, The Los Romeros, Alvaro Pierri, Oscar Ghiglia, Gerald Garcia, Duo Gruber & Maklar, Dale Kavnagh and many more


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