FRANCE: Rueil Malmaison, The First International Guitar Festival, May 19, 20, 21, 2000.
Organising our first festival was a little like taking a high dive into the deep end of a swimming pool: exhilarating, refreshing and not without risks. The risks, it turns out, were well calculated. The festival was a resounding success, a three-day event which brought together guitarists of all styles from France, Canada, Argentina, Brazil, Spain and the Caribbean.
The curious-sounding and unpronounceable name of Rueil Malmaison belongs to a pleasant suburban town just 10 kilometers west of Paris, with an atmosphere less intense than that great city, but no less rich in history . "Malmaison" was the name of the country estate and château owned by Napoleon and Josephine Bonaparte, now a museum surrounded by a lovely park. Cardinal Richelieu lived here from 1625 to 1642 and Impressionists Monet and Renoir used to paint on the banks of the River Seine nearby.
The city boasts four active cultural centres with a fifth due to open in the coming year. The guitar festival was hosted entirely by the recently opened "Athénée" Cultural Centre (number four) where all of the concerts, masterclasses, conferences and exhibitions took place.
As is so often the case with events of this kind, the festival came about thanks to a combination of circumstances. One main starting point was the "Alliances" Forum for the guitar held in May 1999 at the Conservatory of Clamart (another suburb of Paris). In France, activity surrounding the guitar is steadily increasing which is good news, needless to say. While Paris itself lacks a major festival and high-profile concerts are few and far between, international festivals and competitions are common in the suburbs and in the provinces. The highly successful International Festival of Vendôme is a good example with four editions so far. Les Alliances de la Guitare created a network for many guitar festivals, schools and societies across the country to encourage exchange and contacts and to showcase artists. This was of invaluable assistance to everyone involved .In fact, we met several of our artists and collaborators during the Forum. Another happy circumstance was the presence on the scene of Athénée's remarkable manager-supervisor-directress, Anne-Marie Blondiot, a long-time guitar lover and former school mate of Roland Dyens himself. The festival would not have been possible without Anne-Marie's apparently limitless energy and devotion.
The opening concert on Friday evening had a Latin American theme, with works for one and two guitars performed to a full and enthusiastic house. Raymond and I played solos and duos by Baden Powell, Bellinati, Zenamon, Brouwer and Montes . Pablo Màrquez flew in from Strasbourg in the afternoon and presented the second half of the concert, a delectable programme of regional music from his home town of Salta in the north west of Argentina: composers such as Gustavo Kanter, Ernesto Cabeza, Julio Espinosa and others. Pablo completely won over his audience. He has immense charm, superb musicianship and a fabulous technique. What more can I say...the best guitarist of his generation? Quite possibly! He is certainly one of them in any case.
Saturday evening's concert, sold out well in advance, was a kind of marathon "Night of the Guitar" with something for everyone, which is probably why the audience contained a nice mix of guitar students, professionals, local families and regulars.
The "opener" was an incredible half-hour (not including encores) of solo flamenco guitar by the young Frasco Santiago, winner of the 1994 Nîmes International Flamenco Competition. His playing was so electrifying that the audience was at first stunned into silence. Then gasps, and finally full-fledged cheers accompanied the sound of Frasco's guitar. The Latin American ensemble "Tempo Fù" performed next on guitar, vocals, Venezuelan quatro, Brazilian percussion and Columbian flute!
After the break, Roland Dyens played a solo concert-within-a-concert, featuring mostly his own compositions. As far as I'm concerned, it was pure, irresistible magic from beginning to end, living proof that the live concert will and must continue to exist in our world. Roland's concerts are unique experiences. Long may he continue... He ended his performance with a few encores, one of which (dedicated to a blushing me) was a marvelous arrangement of Canada's national anthem. Roland has a particular fondness for this work and has even incorporated it into some of his compositions such as the "Concertomaggio" concerto written for the Amadeus Guitar Duo.
By this time, it was well past eleven o'clock and the audience was still hungry for more. A group of four of France's best jazz guitarists provided a rich dessert to end the evening's feast. Jean-Félix Lalanne and Jo Vurchio (France), Serge Tamas (Caribbean) and Luiz de Aquino (Brazil) played and improvised together for another hour or so to a delighted crowd. I noticed one or two spectators dozing in their seats due to the late hour but everyone stayed, right up until the last note. A perfect evening which ended with a lively buffet- reception for artists and organisers.
Saturday afternoon's masterclasses, given by Pablo Màrquez and Roland Dyens, featured top-level students from around the country. The quality of teaching in both classes was really marvelous and of great benefit to all. For these young players, performing in a masterclass can often seem like a "trial by fire" (I remember it well!) but though difficult, it is vital to their development.
Throughout the weekend, a permanent exhibition was set up in the main hall displaying instruments, CD's, sheet music, catalogues, magazines and the like through which people browsed freely. The wonderful French luthier Antoine Pappalardo presented a guitar-building demonstration and workshop on Sunday afternoon which was very popular, especially with the younger participants.
To complete a well-packed festival, last but certainly not least, Francis Kleynjans gave a concert and lecture about his own music and compositional techniques which was most interesting and original. In fact, considering the number of guitarist-composers active at the moment, it's surprising that this type of formula is not seen more often. Francis is surely one of the most prolific guitar composers in the history of the instrument with an amazing range running from children's pieces to concert works performed by dedicatees such as David Russell and Roberto Aussel. He is also a fine guitarist with an especially beautiful pair of hands, which is rarer than one would think.
Finding adequate financial support when putting on a festival is always a problem but again,we were lucky. We are also very grateful to our sponsors Savarez, Editions Henry Lemoine Paris and DIAM Music Distribution. After this first success, our festival shows all the signs of becoming an ongoing event, most likely on a biennial basis but perhaps also expanding to a week's duration... we'll see.
The city of Rueil Malmaison featured an article about the festival on their Website. One excerpt ran: "As Molière's Don Juan says, New beginnings have inexplicable charms. Throughout the three days, an astonishing succession of real virtuosos - one wonders if they can be human!- appeared on the Festival stage and demonstrated without exception their common desire to serve the music first and above all,to share their love of their instrument."
That sums it up nicely, I would say. On a personal level, my first experience as artistic director was a richly satisfying one. Granted, it's a big responsibility and far from easy, but the rewards are well worth it. Like defending and promoting the guitar in all its forms and witnessing first-hand the pleasure it gives. I would unhesitatingly encourage anyone to try it, on whatever scale you can manage. Who knows, with a little luck it might work. So go ahead...take the plunge!
- © Vincea McLelland, 2001