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Iserlohn International Guitar Symposium Celebrates 20 Years!

by Timothy Phelan, Canada

The week of July 2431 2011 marked the twentieth-anniversary milestone in the history of the Iserlohn International Guitar Symposium. Since 1992 hosts Dale Kavanagh and Thomas Kirchhoff of the Amadeus Guitar Duo have staged an annual festival that has become one of todays largest and most prestigious. A review of the artists who have participated in this symposium over its twenty-year history reads like a definitive whos-who of the modern guitar world, and this years lineup was a microcosm of the same. Perhaps the greatest attribute of this festival, however, is the complete and utter absence of pretentiousness! It is truly inspiring to find such a collection of the greatest performers and teachers of our time co-mingling with some two-hundred festival participants in such a relaxed, friendly, inviting and collegial atmosphere.

Nestled in an idyllic setting along the river Ruhr just outside of the village of Schwerte in Germanys North RhineWestphalia region is Haus Villigst, a twelfth-century manor-turned-seminary that has maintained all of its historic charm amidst recent renovations that have transformed it into a modern conference center with twenty-first-century standards of comfort and convenience. The welcoming central courtyard is a fitting metaphor for the festivals own week-long place at the center of the guitar universe a meeting spot for guitar enthusiasts from all corners of the globe. This courtyard, filled almost constantly with sweet guitar sonorities, is encircled by a bright and modern glass foyer (home to the intimate after-concert parties), a dining hall with outdoor patio spaces (home to the substantial daily breakfasts, lunches and dinners), updated dormitories with all of the comforts of home, and a grand historic building which is home to the luthiers and the lessons.

The festivals namesake is the town in which the entire event was originally housed (and home to hosts Dale and Thomas). Since 2008 the accommodations and daytime elements of the festival have been centered at Haus Villigst, but evenings in Iserlohn are still front and foremost in the minds and hearts of the participants! Much of the excited discussion in the meeting places deals with the musical marvels conjured up in Iserlohn the previous evening or perhaps even more poignantly the anticipation of the new magic set to unfold that coming night! The town of Iserlohn may be just a short drive along a scenic road, but the ritual of the post-supper bus ride to the magnificent acoustical space of the Oberste Stadtkirche Iserlohn is a sort of nightly pilgrimage to the mecca of the guitar world.

The highly anticipated Guitar Gala Night that launched the twentieth edition of the festival on Sunday evening more than exceeded the expectations of the capacity crowd which packed the church. The concert opened with the powerhouse double-duo collaboration of the Amadeus Guitar Duo together with another of Germanys finest ensembles, the GruberMaklar Duo, and featured bravura performances of quartet music by Domeniconi, Rodrigo (Concierto Andaluz with the brilliant organist Tobias Aehlig), and Dale Kavanaghs exquisite performance of the Aranjuez Adagio (also with organ). The fire and passion of the tango was the order of business following intermission, with the highly stylized musical expression of the Duo BandiniChiacchiaretta. Featuring an incredibly simpatico union of guitar and bandoneon, the Italian duos virtuosic interpretations of the likes of Maximo Diego Pujol and Astor Piazzolla left the audience begging for more, and the entire evening set the bar very high indeed for the artists to follow.

Not to disappoint, the gauntlet was graciously and gallantly retrieved the following night by Scotlands David Russell, the only artist to be given an entire evening to himself. The overflow crowd witnessed in hushed and reverent amazement the seemingly effortless manner in which the maestro expresses his art. The music of Handel and Bach emanated from his instrument with legendary poise and finesse, and his own transcriptions of Albniz held the audience spellbound with the imagery of the Spain which he calls home. The result was wave after countless wave of grateful and enthusiastic eruptions from the crowd, each greeted in Mr. Russells characteristically humble and appreciative manner with an encore.

And so the week continued, having been energized in such an auspicious manner over the course of the first two evenings. The duo of Alfonso Montes (Venezuela) and Irina Kircher (Germany) opened Tuesdays concert with their highly expressive and communicative playing, featuring throughout their program a sprinkling of Montes own gorgeous compositions. They were followed by the Peruvian/American virtuoso Jorge Caballero, whose perfectly controlled and meticulously orchestrated performance of Moussorgskys Pictures At An Exhibition moved the audience to jaw-dropping bewilderment not to mention a brand new understanding of the outer frontiers of the guitars technical and expressive capabilities in such formidable hands.

Canadian guitarist Laura Youngs Wednesday performance was highlighted by a luminous and compelling realization of music for solo cello by Max Reger (via her own highly authoritative transcription), and a powerful and possibly peerless interpretation of Carlo Domeniconis Koyunbaba. Ms. Youngs commanding intensity made her a very tough act to follow, indeed, but the playful expressiveness of Czech master Pavel Steidl provided the perfect balance to the evening. This animated artist served up a veritable smorgasbord of treats from the Classical/Romantic repertoire and from his homeland before captivating the crowd with his own Hommage a Jana Obrovska, complete with trance-inducing ostinato and magical overtones of Tuvan throat-singing.

Thursdays concert, featuring multiple-major-competition winners, began with Irina Kulikova of Russia who opened her program in grand style with the California Suite of Jos Maria Gallardo del Rey. Her voice-like phrasing and technical mastery also produced a captivating performance of Sors lyrical Fantaisie, Op.30 before rounding out her recital with Dale Kavanaghs Briny Ocean. The stage was then handed over to Goran Krivokapic of Montenegro, another young conqueror of the international competition circuit, who has dedicated himself to the enrichment of the repertoire through his own transcriptions. The audience was treated to masterful and fresh renditions of C.P.E. Bach and Haydn that have now found a welcoming new home on the guitar.

The final evening of solo recitals was shared by two Italian compatriots. Andrea Vettorettis suave and elegant playing featured his own Chakra, pieces from Simone Iannarellis Italian Coffee (dedicated to Vettoretti), and Tarregas Gran Jota. Listeners were then wise to take advantage of the rest afforded them during the interval in preparation for the virtual rollercoaster ride that was to follow. Aniello Desiderio delivered immense emotional contrasts in a program anchored by two Segovia-inspired twentieth-century masterpieces: Castelnuovo-Tedescos Sonata Ommaggio a Boccherini Op.77, and Torrobas Sonatina in A.

While the previous six nights had been devoted to some of the current giants of the guitar world, Saturday was primarily the domain of the students. And judging by the caliber of the performances, several of the future stars of the classical guitar could very well have been among them. The grand finale involved a guitar orchestra almost fifty-strong conducted by Maestro Gerald Garcia (celebrating his twentieth appearance at the Iserlohn Symposium) featuring his new work in two movements with superb violist Armine Abrahamyan. The first movement (The Falcon pursued by Crows) engaged the soloist and the six distinct voices of the ensemble in a relentlessly energetic and elaborate flight, and the second (Heart of Water) was a soaring, fluid and utterly sublime treatment of the traditional Armenian melody Die Yaman. A glorious finale to the festival concert schedule indeed!

Of course, a symposium is as much about the other learning experiences as it is about the concerts. Participants who chose to take lessons each had the opportunity to study with four teachers, and in addition to the masterclasses given by the illustrious roster of festival performers, the following renowned guitarists also made significant contributions through their inspired teaching: Danielle Cumming (Canada/USA), Frank Gerstmeier (Germany), Bruce Holzman (USA), Hans-Werner Huppertz (Germany), Tom Johnson (USA), Winy Kellner (Mexico), Martha Masters (USA), Emma Rush (Canada) and Ulrich Stracke (Germany).

The entire Iserlohn Symposium and its storied twenty-year history is a testament to the Amadeus Duo; to their passion for music-making at the highest level, to their commitment to excellence in teaching, and to the rich friendships and associations that they have cultivated over the course of their career. Mention must also be made of Thomas Kirchhoffs supreme organizational skills which touch even the most minute of details...a Saturday evening concert for early arrivals (presenting two very fine ensembles, Cuarteto Apasionado and the Baltic Quartet), several excellent afternoon student recitals, yoga classes with Danielle Cumming, finger aerobics with Dale Kavanagh, recording sessions with Hans-Werner Huppertz, expansive displays of music and accessories by Chanterelle and Trekel, an assembly of world-class luthiers with an instrument demonstration featuring Irina Kulikova, an extensive list of generous sponsors, a beautifully published souvenir program, a schedule that runs like clockwork, a friendly and accommodating festival staff...and Thomas himself greeting participants by name! Happy 20th Anniversary, Iserlohn, and may there be many joyous returns (count mine among them)! 21st Symposium from August 12th to August 19th, 2012. Players and teachers roster includes: Pepe Romero, the Los Angeles Guitar Quartet, Alvaro Pierri, Duo Melis, Dale Kavanagh, Judecael Perroy, Tantalus Quartet, Eos Guitar Quartet, Gerald Garcia, Bruce Holzman, Tom Johnson, Danielle Cumming, Stephen Aaron, Hubert Kappel, Pablo de la Cruz, Frank Gerstmeier, Ulrich Stracke and Thomas Kirchhoff.

Timothy Phelan is a Canadian guitarist and composer based in the Niagara Region. A graduate of the University of Toronto (where he studied with Eli Kassner) and subsequently a conductor and arranger for the University of Toronto Guitar Ensemble, he currently teaches at Brock University, Mohawk College and Ridley College, in addition to his private studio.

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