The guitar is a wonderful instrument for leading a vagabond life. That is probably why it (along with the violin and accordion) figures so prominently in gypsy music: it is self-contained and portable. Over the past four years I have been leading a mobile life. My work as a civil engineer has taken me back and forth across the continent from Edmonton, to Vancouver, to Boston, to Denver and back to Edmonton again. During my travels, my guitar has been my constant companion, accompanying my moves and often my extended business trips, providing solace in hotel rooms and furnished apartments across North America. While in these cities I have had the opportunity to join their guitar societies, listen to concerts and take the occasional lesson along the way.
Vancouver was my first stop. It is one of the most beautiful cities in the world, nestled on the West Coast at the mouth of the Fraser River. It is particularly endearing when the sun shines, which is unfortunately a rarity during the winter. This was a bit depressing for an Alberta boy used to mostly sunny skies all year around. The old joke about not having to shovel rain provides some solace, but to really chase away the blues you need to dip into Vancouver's vibrant cultural scene. So I did, seeing concerts ranging from the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra to lutenist Paul Odette joining baroque violinist Monica Huggett at the Early Music Festival for some impromptu jamming.
Surprisingly enough for its size, Vancouver did not have a guitar society. Nevertheless, I saw my first GFA winner concert in Vancouver: Antigoni Goni. (She will be returning to Edmonton on April 27, so mark your calendars!) She played a private concert at Harold Micay's house. For $20 each, a couple dozen fans sat in a living room cleared of all furniture but various chairs and sofas to listen to some wonderful music. Surely this has to be the natural habitat for the guitar: an intimate salon setting.
After a year in Vancouver work called me to Boston, Massachusetts, to help build a tunnel. The Central Artery Tunnel Project, locally referred to as the Big Dig, is a $15 billion undertaking to bury the currently elevated Interstate that runs through downtown Boston. The two years I spent there were very rewarding. If Vancouver was vibrant, Boston was a veritable cultural Mecca for a classical music buff. Famous institutions such as Harvard, MIT, the New England Conservatory of Music and the Boston Conservatory of Music are there, as is the renowned jazz school, the Berklee College of Music. The Boston Symphony and Boston Pops play year-around to nearly sold-out crowds at Symphony Hall and at the outdoor Hatch Shell by the Charles River. There is not a night of the week that you cannot hear a concert in Boston.
Boston has one of the largest guitar societies around, boasting a membership of some 200 people. The Boston Classical Guitar Society actively promotes the classical guitar with a bimonthly 14 to 16 page newsletter, sponsorship of various guitar concerts and events, and hosts an annual one-day festival. The theme of the one I attended in the fall of 1999 at Wellesley College just west of Boston was Caribbean and South American music. Various New England luthiers, music retailers and publishers held a small trade show; lectures were given on newly found Villa-Lobos scores and how to properly play samba and tango rhythms; an open-panel discussion on the creative process and composing for the guitar was held; and the grand finale of the day was a concert by the Brazilian virtuoso guitarist and composer, Paulo Bellinati.
The society also promotes the growth of its amateur members with monthly performance parties. Usually held on a Saturday afternoon at one volunteering member's house, these parties bring together members for several hours of shared guitar playing and pot-luck wine, cheese, and crackers. Quite enjoyable.
Other notable highlights from the guitar scene in Boston were concerts by John Williams (in a word: amazing!), Christopher Parkening, Paco de Lucia and his Flamenco Septet (who will be at the Winspear in Edmonton on Sunday, April 1), and a masterclass by John Duarte.
After my Boston stint, came a year of living and working in Denver, Colorado, where the company I was working for had its head office. Denver is a city not unlike Edmonton or Calgary in terms of its cultural events. It does not have the embarrassment of riches of Boston, but with a keen nose, one can find plenty of concerts and events to attend. The Romero's came to town to dazzle and wow, and Sharon Isbin gave a wonderful concert and lecture as part of a chamber music series, which featured her playing the famous Boccherini "Fandango" quintet.
The best musical experience of my stay in Colorado though, has to be the wonderful Classical Guitar Society of Northern Colorado: a long name for a small society with a big heart. Only about 20 dues-paying members make up the roster of this group, but they are a dedicated bunch. This society's main raison d'être is to come together monthly at Sweet Rosie's, a small café whose owner comes in and opens the store just for the society, to meet and play for each other. Attendance? About 12 to 15 people play at every meeting, from rank beginner to professional. The novices start the night off and gradually as the evening progresses the performance level rises. It is quite enjoyable to see the whole spectrum of players, a kind of snapshot of the road we all travel. Despite the small size, they have a monthly newsletter - one letter-sized sheet - sometimes only printed on one side, which announces upcoming events, reviews past concerts, and most importantly, lists who played what at the monthly meeting. Everyone gets to see their name in print. (After people play a notepad is passed around on which the performers, pieces and composers thereof are written.)
Not to be content with only being a performing society, the CGSNC also brings in the GFA winner once a year (who they pride themselves in paying all that is left over at the till after expenses) and "one big name", as their main promoter, Don Simon, puts it. It was there that I saw the likes of Denis Azabagic and Judicaël Perroy.
My travelogue and recollection of the past four years ends where it started: in Edmonton. I returned back home in October in time to see last year's GFA winner, Lorenzo Micheli in concert at Muttart Hall. Ironically enough I was still putting up posters for his show in Colorado in September before I left. I'm happy to be back home and back with the ECGS, where I maintained my membership throughout the years since I joined it shortly after its founding in 1995. While living abroad, I eagerly received news about the guitar scene from home, and it has been great watching this society grow. At times I wished I could have been here to see the artists that this society has booked: the Los Angeles Guitar Quartet, Alvaro Pierri, Fabio Zanon, and many others. Edmonton, for a city of its size and as remotely north as it is, has a great guitar scene, and that is in no small measure to the efforts of the executive and active members of the society. My praises and thanks to them. Keep up the good work!
On a personal note I would like to encourage as many of you to attend the monthly coffeehouse meetings we are having the first Monday of every month at Perk Avenue. Let this be a venue to test your performing ability in an informal and relaxed setting. Get out and play! From my experience in Boston and Colorado, these are pleasurable moments and a great opportunity to meet like-minded lovers of the classical guitar.
Thanks, Nils Hahn