Guitar Fest at Appalachian State University is a three day celebration of state-of-the-art guitar playing, in-depth master classes, head spinning concerts, an equally head spinning roster of young classical guitarists contesting the International Competition, and a collegial good time. A festival with all that is worthy and good in the guitar world where listening, teaching, and playing at such high levels nurtures the souls of young and old alike.
The eleventh edition was held April 7-9 and, by all indicators – including general fiat – the event has come of age. The concerts were sold out, the competition featured a world-class field and playing to match, the participants included music students from throughout the Mid-Atlantic region, and the guest artists brought an unusually broad palette of offerings to their classes and concert programs. Exact numbers for this year are not yet available, but the general enrollment of participants in any given year runs between 50 and 90, with 12 to 16 of those chosen to perform in one of four distinct master classes.
The guest artist roster is normally set at four, with each player or act sharing a concert on one of two nights and then presenting a class. This year the featured concert artists were Douglas James, Steven Thachuck, Steven Walter, and Michael Nicolella; virtuosos all, and with inspired or inspirational programs. All activities take place within the cavernous Hayes School of Music Building on the ASU campus, where practice rooms on the fourth floor come alive with guitars at this time of year. The programs are given in the Broyhill Recital Hall. With 126 seats, it offers an intimate and "just right" space for guitar concerts serving both registered participants and audience members from the community.
The guy responsible for all this is Douglas James, Professor and Director of Guitar Studies at ASU's Hayes School of Music, who initiated a modest little mountain gathering in 1996. Originally comprised of just concerts and classes, the event later took on an international competition, has occasionally featured a large ensemble of participants, and offers guitar-builder, sheet-music, and other vendor displays. Over the past ten years, James has presented both up-and-coming talent and veteran concert artists. Among the artists and ensembles have been the North Carolina Guitar Quartet, the 19th-century guitar duo of Pasquale Rucco and Douglas James (James has also performed solo using original 19th-century six-string and "Mertz" style ten-string instruments), the 19th-century guitar and fortepiano duo of Robert Trent and Pamela Swenson Trent, nationally recognized music therapist Ron Borczon, conductor and guitar ensemble arranger Alan Hirsh, the guitar duo of Miroslav Loncar and Natasa Klasinc-Loncar, Christopher Berg with Hazel Ketchum, and soloists Stephen Robinson, Stephen Aron and Mir Ali, Andrew Zohn, Adam Holzman, Richard Savino, Benjamin Verdery, David Starobin, Lily Afshar, Alieksey Vianna, John Michael Parris, Gerald Klickstein, Elliot Frank, Patrick O'Brien, Michael Chapdelaine, Dennis Cinelli, Leo Welch, John Holmquist, Patrick Kearney, Thomas Patterson, Stanley Yates – an impressive roster by any measure.
The International Competition was introduced in 2000 and has grown in stature. First place winners receive the Ralph and Debra Grosswald Prize of $1,000. Competitors have come from all over the United States and foreign lands including Russia, Mexico, Guatemala, Brazil, Canada, Israel, and Uruguay. This year, twenty players signed up for the first round.
To be eligible in 2006, contestants had to have been born on or after April 1, 1976, possess a social security number (to receive the prize money), and present a 22-25-minute program consisting of free-choice material but including at least one piece by J.S. Bach. The competition has three rounds – the preliminary round on Thursday, closed to the public, where a maximum of twelve players were chosen to advance to the semi-final round, where the finalists were trimmed down to just four players. The last two rounds were performed in the recital hall before an audience.
Judging such a diverse and impressive group of players turns into part-time work for all the guest artists at one time or another during the weekend. The judges are career musicians, mostly guitarists or with significant links to the guitar; and those who don't rotate off the panel between rounds are often regional teachers or scholars who return every year to be a part of the process. This core – up to three judges for every round – is a constant. Guest artists then fill in to reach the minimum number of five judges that sit for each round. This formula ensures there are at least two pairs of fresh ears in the mix each round.
This year the Ralph and Debra Grosswald Prize was awarded to Alfonso Aguirre Dergal of Mexico. He is a graduate student at the Eastman School of Music who studies with Nicholas Goluses. Second place went to Matthew Palmer of Falls Creek, TN, who did undergraduate work at Middle Tennessee State University with William Yelverton before coming to Douglas James' studio and ASU for graduate study. Third place went to Mark Edwards, a student of Andrew Zohn at Columbus State University in Georgia. Mia Pomerantz came in fourth. She has dual citizenship (USA and Israel) and studies at Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore.
Take my word for it – all these young musicians were great, and I think just getting into the final round constitutes a big victory – along with well deserved peer recognition. Trying to distinguish who is better or best on a given day is really splitting hairs. All presented their programs with poise, maturity, intelligence, abundant technical skills, and impressive control.
For more information on this year's Guitar Fest, see http://www.music.appstate.edu/guitarfest/ [inactive 9/08].
This annual festival normally takes place on or about the first weekend of April, but the spring stock car race at nearby Bristol, TN, apparently exerts such a powerful vacuum on regional housing and services that the actual date can't be established until the fall. Therefore all we can say about next year is to check the CVNC calendar pages for the exact 2007 dates when they are announced.