News Column

San Luis Obispo festival offers 10 reasons to love classical guitar

September 2, 2013


Sept. 02--Many interviews with classical guitarists inevitably lead to the same looking-ahead question: How can we get more people interested in classical guitar?

It's an obvious question because, let's face it -- some of the stuff you read about classical guitar can be a little dry. After all, most of us don't know why it's important to have studied under Felipe Sosa, we aren't sure whether to be impressed that someone has performed at the Caramoor Festival, and we don't know about the academic achievements of the Conservatoire Royal de Bruxelles.

Those credentials, boasted by some of the musicians performing at this year's La Guitarra California Festival at Cal Poly, Sept. 6-8, are probably interesting -- to those in the classical guitar world. But to the rest of us . . .

Maybe not.

But classical guitar can be interesting if you dig a little further.

Here are 10 interesting things about some of the performers at this year's festival, which features concerts, master classes, lectures and guitar maker exhibits.

--The Los Angeles Guitar Quartet's first tour entailed gigs at 48 schools in rural Mexico with no translator. During the 5-week tour, arranged by the Los Angeles cultural affairs department, one of their concerts was overrun by a flock of birds. "It was just awrrk, awrrk, awrrk," quartet member John Dearman told USC's "Trojan Family Magazine." "These birds were going nuts! They drowned us out completely."

At another show during the tour, they performed in an adobe church, where roosting pigeons turned the quartet into targets for their droppings.

--Andrew York -- formerly a member of the Los Angeles Guitar Quartet -- is known for his compositions and his extensive background as a jazz guitarist. But he also has a tech side to him, having written audio software that mimicks natural sound noises, including wind chimes and ocean waves. "Writing this code required creating complex algorithms to make sounds believable and realistic," he told Classical Guitar Magazine.

--A few years ago, Berta Rojas discovered that a collector of old musical instruments in her native Paraguay had an antique guitar that he knew little about -- except that it had once belonged to a German-speaking Paraguayan woman named Berta. Turns out, it was Rojas' great-grandmother. The family had lost track of her guitar years earlier.

"He didn't want to sell it, unfortunately," Rojas told the Austin American-Statesman. "Maybe some day I'll be able to buy it."

Rojas' great-grandmother -- originally from Switzerland -- played guitar while her great-grandfather, Wilhelm, played violin.

--As a classical musician, Jason Vieaux has performed as a concert soloist with over 50 orchestras around the world. He has transformed Pat Metheny songs to classical music. And he co-founded the Guitar Department at the Curtis Institute of Music. But despite all his classical cred, he has a secret metalhead past. When the website ProgSheet asked him what his first album was, he replied, "John Williams, 'The Art of the Spanish Guitar' ... either that or 'Pyromania' by Def Leppard."

"Pyromania" did not make his list of CDs he couldn't do without, but Steely Dan and the Beatles joined Beethoven and Stravinsky in his favorites.

--While Vieaux had an early interest in rock and soul because of his parents' tastes and Andrew York actually played in a rock band at age 16, Martha Masters said she's never wanted to play popular music.

"There's something about the challenge and the rewards of playing the lines and the voices of classical guitar," she told the Herald-Tribune (Sarasota, FL).

She did initially want to play cello, but her mother said it was too big to carry to school. So she opted for guitar -- at age six.

--Whenever she returns to Paraguay, Berta Rojas visits the cemetery where her great-grandmother is buried. The two shared a name and a musical passion but never met.

"Now I always pay Berta a visit when I go home," Rojas, a performer and professor of guitar at George Washington University, told the American-Statesman. "It's part of the ritual."

--Cal Poly professor Craig Russell is also a musical detective, who has spent considerable time tracking down historical music, including compositions played during the California mission era and music performed in California and Mexico during the colonial days. His research has led him to cathedrals in Mexico, musical archives in libraries and universities and even a garage. In 2000, some of the music he rediscovered was performed in a program he narrated at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.

--Scott Tennant, who performs as a soloist and a member of the LA Guitar Quartet, said his first two solo CDs were recorded an hour outside of Brussels in a small medieval chapel.

"We would normally start recording around 10 p.m. because there are no outside noises at that time, other than maybe a scooter or the settling of the ancient wood that would at times force us to do another take," he told Los Angeles Classical Guitars.

--The LA Guitar Quartet's William Kanengiser told the website Classic al Guitar Alive! That he got his first guitar thanks to S&H green stamps. After his mother had collected enough stamps, his brother got a guitar.

"He tried to learn it, but after about three months he gave up," Kanengiser said. "I said, 'Oh, I'd like to try that.'"

While his love for guitar stuck -- his first guitar did not.

"We played El Kabong one day on the back porch, and I smashed it," he said. "It deserved to be smashed. It was coming apart, as one might expect."

The first guitar lick he ever learned was from James Taylor's "Fire and Rain."

"Then later on I got really into Yes," he said.

--Cal Poly's Craig Russell started college as a physics major, but eventually switched to classical guitar. In high school, he played in a band called Uncle Bernie's Farm, named after a Frank Zappa song.


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