ECGS Article Archives
The 1997 GFA Convention
by Ernst Birss

In October I had the great privilege of attending the Guitar Foundation Of America Convention in the beautiful seaside community of La Jolla, California, just north of San Diego. This annual festival, which brings together hundreds of guitarists for a week of concerts, masterclasses, and seminars, provides an unequalled opportunity to find out what's going on in the guitar world and to hear performances by some of the best guitarists alive. The GFA Solo Guitar Competition, which runs concurrently with the rest of the festival, has become one of the most important events of its kind and is a stepping stone to a successful career for any aspiring concert guitarist. This years convention, competently directed by Dr. Randy Pile from the nearby University of California at San Diego, was organised to honour the late Maestro Celedonio Romero (1917-1996), and featured concerts and lectures by members of the extraordinary Romero family.

Contestants in the guitar competition, which took place in the lofty church of St. James-by-the-Sea, were required to learn Schubert's "Standchen" in a contemporary guitar arrangement by Johann Kaasper Mertz, an excruciatingly difficult piece by Joachim Rodrigo entitled "Un Tiempo Fue Italica Famoso" and "Deux Tableaux" an impressionistic pair of works by American James Wilson selected in a separate "set piece" competition for composers. Performances in the finals (the only part of the competition I was able to attend) were of a very high standard, given what must have been the most nerve-wracking of conditions. Perhaps by coincidence, the programs of the four finalists all featured large-scale pieces by Romantic composers, in contrast to last year's competition, where more modern works seemed to prevail. French guitarist Judicael Perroy, who won performed no less than three movements from Paganini's Grand Sonata, Op. 19, won First Prize, which includes a $5,000 cash award and a North American concert tour. Second place went to Italian Franco Platino, who also won the recording contract with Naxos Records. José Antonio Escobar Olivos and Martha Masters took third and fourth prizes respectively.

For a non-competitor the concerts of the GFA are one of the main reasons for attending and this year's succession of superb performances certainly made the trip worthwhile. A number of well known guitarist-composers were invited to the festival, including Russian Nikita Koshkin, who charmed the audience with renditions of "The Prince's Toys" and several works for ten string guitar (which Koshkin "prepared" with cardboard and other materials during the performance). South American guitar legend Jorgé Morel, in a concert made up of his own arrangements and compositions, proved that, while his technique is probably not what it once was, his power to communicate musically is still alive and well. Later in the week, French guitarist Roland Dyens treated us to a selection of his favorites from the guitar repertoire interspersed with his own inimitable improvisations. A highlight among the other concerts was Scott Tennant's near flawless afternoon recital, which included the two small but surprisingly substantial pieces by Brian Head from Tennant's book, Pumping Nylon. Also memorable was the afternoon concert by baroque lutenist John Schneiderman, who demonstrated that the tradition of 18th century lute composition did not end with Bach and Weiss, and the evening concert by young flamenco guitarist Adam Del Monte whose brilliant and supremely musical performances of Albeniz and Piazzolla showed him to be the equal of any strictly classical player at the festival. Alexander Dunn's evening performance of three large works by Matiegka, Regondi and Castelnuovo-Tedesco was another standout.

Concerts by members of the Romero family were, however, very much at the centre of this years GFA. A performance by the full Romero quartet, now composed of Celin, Pepé, Celino (Celin's son) and Lito (Angel's son), took place on the evening of the festival's first day. Devoted largely to works by Celedonio Romero, the concert demonstrated that the third generation of guitar playing Romeros is more than qualified to carry on the family tradition. Angel Romero, somewhat less of a presence at the festival due to a busy concert schedule, found time to give a Thursday evening recital that was breathtaking in its effortless virtuosity, while his brother Pepé proved himself an equally accomplished guitarist the following night. Celin Romero unfortunately did not give a solo recital but did treat us to an afternoon of reminiscences of the family to which Pepé and Jorgé Morel contributed their own fascinating and often hilarious anecdotes. The Pepé Romero masterclass was, as expected, inspiring, enlightening and entertaining.

The 1997 GFA convention was also unique in that a number of prominent luthiers were invited to give a day of lectures about their craft. Miguel Rodriguez was unfortunately unable to attend, but we were able to listen to Eusebio Rioja on the guitar in Spain, and to hear Hermann Hauser III describe his illustrious family's generations-long association with such guitarists as Segovia and Celedonio Romero. In addition, American luthier Dake Traphagen and master craftsman Yuris Zeltsins provided some intriguing insights into what it takes to build and maintain our extraordinarily tempermental instruments. Later in the day we had the privilege of hearing Pepé Romero demonstrate a succession of old and new guitars from his personal collection.

The festival concluded with a concert at La Jolla Cove by flamenco guitarist Juan Serrano and a subsequent party (at which your's truly helped make the sangria).

- Ernst Birss