Arts Feature

Southern Guitar Festival Offers More Than Classical Gas

By Patrick Wall
Wednesday, June 4, 2014
Gohar Vardanyan

Imagine a classical guitar performance, and you’re likely thinking of a besuited music school student robotically performing a Bach piece. Or a tuxedoed guitarist playing Pachelbel’s Canon in D as a bride walks down the aisle. Or, worse, Mason Williams’ 1968 novelty hit “Classical Gas.”

The problem, Southern Guitar Festival founder Marina Alexandra thinks, is one of perception.

“There is some truth to the assumption that classical guitar playing can be rigid and too reserved,” concedes Alexandra, herself an exceptionally skilled classical guitarist with vibrant technique and an energetic flair. “The majority of today’s audience is looking for a quick, very artificial fix. They want music to be fast, loud and preferably with lots of drums. We, classically trained musicians, want to bring some balance to the stage and show that a true beauty is not necessarily loud and in your face.”

Hence the Southern Guitar Festival, the third installment of which runs Friday through Sunday at Columbia College and features guitar competitions in various divisions, afternoon workshops and evening concerts.

The festival’s grown significantly since Alexandra, a native Ukrainian, founded it in 2012. The number of competitors increases every year, she says. This year, there are more master classes and workshops, and she hopes in coming years to expand those offerings.

While the bulk of its mission is educational, it’s the performances by the featured artists that set the Southern Guitar Festival apart, Alexandra says.

“Nowadays,” she offers, “there are tons of great virtuoso classical players who often can be quite boring performers, so what I am looking for in the concert players is how interesting they are as artists: Can he [or] she engage the audience and be inspiring?”

This year’s featured artists certainly live up to that expectation. Alexandra performs at Friday’s opening night concert at 7 p.m. with fiery Armenian virtuoso Gohar Vardanyan, a sensationally talented guitarist and expressive performer. Alexandra met Vardanyan several years ago at a competition in Georgia (the state, not the former Soviet republic), and she embodies the kind of performer Alexandra is looking for.

“She really impressed me with how she just took the stage by storm,” Alexandra says.

Another such artist is Romanian-born flamenco guitarist Silviu Ciulei, who performs at Saturday night’s 7 p.m. concert alongside last year’s Southern Guitar Festival competition winner, the Mexican-born Ivan Resendiz. Ciulei is one of the best guitarists in the world; Acoustic Guitar magazine recently named him one of the best 30 guitarists under 30 years old. He’s performed at the last two Southern Guitar Festivals with his nuevo flamenco ensemble the Maharajah Flamenco Trio, which pushes the boundaries of flamenco by augmenting it with unusual instruments like the native-to-Australia didgeridoo.

Like Alexandra, Ciulei performs in international festivals and competitions, and he, too, is confronted with audiences expecting rigid classicism.

“When you present that kind of music, your audience automatically gets this kind of feeling of, like, ‘OK, this is a real concert, like going to the opera. I’d better dress up, I’d better be pompous,’” he laughs. “You know, stuff like that. ‘Oh, I’d better not clap when it’s not time!’”

Ciulei tries to refute those expectations with a more casual, laid-back vibe. For instance, he says his performance will still draw heavily from the modern flamenco performed by his Maharajah Flamenco Trio, but will include some gypsy jazz and some Django Reinhardt. And while he’s teaching master classes at the festival, he’s sure to leave the pedagogy in the classroom.

“It’s summertime,” Ciulei laughs. “People are ready to go out to the terrace and have a drink. It kind of gets them ready for that. You’re going to go have some tacos and grab some beers and tequila shots afterward.” 

The Southern Guitar Festival runs June 6-8 on the campus of Columbia College. Guest artist performances on Friday and Saturday are $20, or $15 for students and children; many other events are free and open to the public. For a complete schedule, visit Link.

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