Hamilton International Guitar Festival and Competition Review

Planning, hosting and directing a guitar festival is no small task. It takes more than love for the guitar and its music to execute and grow an event of that magnitude. Coordinating artists, readying venues, organizing transportation, advertising and managing a seemingly endless list of"to-do" items is enough to make one's head spin. One would never know that by watching Emma Rush, Director of the Hamilton International Guitar Festival and Competition.

For the last 6 years it has been my distinct privilege to teach, lecture and perform at a guitar festival that takes place in the community of Hamilton, Ontario and is worthy of the attention of the guitar world at large. This year's event took place Friday, July 8 to Sunday, July 10, 2016. The concert lineup this year consisted of the Eden Stell Duo (UK), Iliana Matos (Cuba), Joseph Palmer (USA), Kevin Manderville (USA), and David Steinhart (USA).

The festival kicked off on Friday with the preliminary round of the competition. All 25 competition slots were sold out. If you are concerned the state of modern guitar playing you can breathe a sigh of relief. The level of guitar playing that these players brought to the competition was very high. Many of these competitors played with a maturity that was far beyond their years and was matched by their professionalism in their interaction with the adjudicators and their peers. The festival opening concert brought Mark Eden and Chris Stell of Great Britain to the concert stage. These two gentlemen have performed together since 1988 and are considered to be one of the best guitar duos in the world. Their virtuosity and good humor immediately endears them to the audience. I thoroughly enjoyed this varied program from Brahms to Mompou, with a stop in Armenia in between. If you get a chance to see the Eden-Stell Duo I strongly suggest you take it!

Saturday began with guitar lessons. A unique feature of this festival is that all lessons are "open-door." This means every lesson has the potential to become a masterclass and each festival participant has the opportunity to sit in on all the lessons they like! The morning workshop was an informative technique class by Canadian guitarist Rob MacDonald. Rob is a member of the acclaimed ChromaDuo and recently made waves with his video recording of Arthur Kampela's, Percussion Study No.1. The afternoon concert featured David Steinhardt, winner of the 2015 Hamilton Guitar Competition. David's programming was far beyond his 19 years but well within his control. From the intensive programmatic piece, A l'aube du dernier jour, by Kleynjans to the heralded Bach Chaconne, the concert was stunning. The evening concert featured Texas favorite, Joseph Palmer and Cuban guitarist, Iliana Matos. Joseph Palmer is the total package. His talent for story telling before each piece helps to draw in the non-traditional guitar concert goer in a way which many guitarists could emulate. Although his program was quite demanding, including works by Scarlatti, Texas composer Joe Williams, George Rochberg, his superb stage presence and virtuosic playing really connected with everyone in the audience. Iliana Matos, who is celebrating 30 years as a concert artist, performed the second half of the concert. Iliana's program was challenging from start to finish. With works by Barrios, Malatz and Tarrega. Iliana delivered the classics of the classical guitar with gorgeous sound and sensitivity She brought to life the melodies of Hector Ayala in a way that I had honestly not heard before that evening. After the Hamilton International Guitar Festival she was off to another concert in Mexico City and I envy them as I would love to hear this program again. Her playing is honest and thoughtful and communicates to the audience in no uncertain terms that she is passionate about the music she is making.

The final morning of the festival featured a presentation by German guitarist, Eve Beneke entitled "The Chaconne Code." The lecture was a survey exploration of numerology in Bach's music and the Chaconne from the d minor violin partita in particular. It was very well attended and a lot of fun. If you like to geek out on numerology, religion and baroque music (as I do) then this was the lecture for you. What can I say about the afternoon's artist, Dr. Kevin Manderville? He is a festival favorite! The students love him, and so does the concert audience. His program was very clever. Bach and an Homage to Bach, followed by Brouwer and an Homage to Brouwer. It was a great narrative for a concert and well rounded in terms of music that was familiar and more challenging (Brouwer's, Canticum). The real treat was the Adagio, Homage to Bach by Gerard Drozd. This Polish composer offers a real gem with this piece and Manderville delivered a superb performance. Sunday evening called the four finalists of the competition for the final round, which also serves as the festival’s final concert. This year's finalists were, Tim Beattie, An Tran, Austin Wahl and Josh Moore. The level was extremely high and I did not envy the judges! However, there can be only one winner and this year the first prize went to, An Tran.

It's possible this review seems a little glowing... although there are a lot of festivals that have great artists, faculty and competitors, Emma Rush and her team at the Hamilton International Guitar Festival create an environment that makes everyone involved feeling like family. They have a personal stake in the success of each student performer, each teacher and in every event of the festival itself. That is why the concerts sell out. That is why people come back year after year. That is why a city that was once without a classical guitar scene is now a guitar city. The festival is talked about in Europe, the United States, and I hope you're now talking about it too. I highly suggest signing up for the 2017 Hamilton International Guitar Festival and Competition, taking place July 7-9, 2017. It's going to be a good one!

Will Douglas teaching baroque guitarist, Kat Hammer.

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