Thursday, February 05, 2009

Southwest Guitar Festival, Day One

Pardon the light blogging, but my Mini's HD died, and I'm on my Powerbook at the moment. Took the "opportunity" to by a refurb PowerMac G5 and new 23" Cinema HD Display, though, so I ought to be back better than ever once it gets here... and I get it set up!

I sure picked the right time to move to San Antonio! The Southwest Guitar Festival is currently being held at The University of Texas, San Antonio, so I shelled out the $125.00 for an all-access Participant Registration. I was considering going to all of the Competition Rounds, but I just have too much to do, so I'll start that coverage with the quarter-final round.

Back when I was working on my MM at Texas State and DMA at UNT, I was actually in on the creation of the SWGF, so I went to the first three of these events. SWGF has grown! It is now an international festival with competition participants from around the world and top flight prize money. One of the guitar student-participants I met told me there were over thirty guitarists in the competition, and only about five were from the US! That's amazing to me, as this just started out with the guitar departments of UTSA, Texas State, and UNT getting together for some regional interaction. Good to see!

I really wanted to live blog this event, but the UTSA wi-fi system requires a student password, so I think I'll suggest that next time they give temporary ID's and passwords to event Participants; it's 2009, for crying out loud!

Last night's program was by UTSA's guitar professor, Dr. Matthew Dunne, as is traditional for first night concerts at festivals. Before I continue, let me remind regular readers and inform new ones that I am not, nor have I ever been, a legit classical guitarist. I have some outstanding issues with that whole scene, frankly, but I will attempt to be as charitable as possible. However, I am a very good composer, with strong opinions about the shortcomings of that contemporary scene, but again, I'll attempt to summon up as much graciousness as I can muster.

First up on the program was Triqueta for Guitar, Horn, and Chamber Orchestra by Dr. James Scott Balentine, who is UTSA's theory/comp guy. In the program notes, Dr. Balentine says that the piece was inspired in part by Brazillian rhythms and jazz harmonies. I certainly detected that with no problem, and the piece had some nice moments, but there didn't seem to be any clear-cut goals or nice arrivals - things that are important to me - and some of the rhythmic aspects bordered on the herky-jerky to my taste, but I'm an old fashioned counterpoint and harmony guy, so take that with the proverbial grain of salt, I guess. The audience enjoyed the piece and it got hearty applause, so I may have been in the minority as a nonplussed listener. At the very least, it wasn't atonal "beeps and squawks" music, which I really can't stand.

Dr. Dunne's performance was fine, but the guitar part wasn't overly flush with idiomatic guitar effects, which is sorta/kinda what I expect when a non-guitarist writes for the instrument. Oh well. More distracting to me was Dr. Dunne's amplification system. It was actually quite good compared to what most acoustic classical guitarists settle for, but since I've been playing electric nylon string guitar for about twenty years now, I have ridiculously high standards and found the sound quality lacking.

Matt has the right idea going with a mini-PA arrangement - that's how I do it - but the speakers, I think they were EV's - were rather lame sounding, IMO. Generally, the sound was too "stringy" with not enough wood, and there wasn't enough bass! LOL! He appeared to be using a small condenser mic mounted so that it was a few inches above the guitar's top - again, quite high tech compared to what most acoustic classical guys settle for - but it just wasn't cutting it compared to the richness of the unamplified chamber orchestra. Perhaps I'll turn him onto my Turbosound TXD-081's, which are the be-all and end-all for PA speakers of that size. The real question is, if you are amplifying a $3,000.00+ guitar, how can you expect it to sound killer without about that much invested in the PA? At original retail prices, the least expensive of my four PA's would be about $4K!

He also didn't have a mute button, and the controls were on a floor unit to his right. Since he had to re-tune for some scordaturas in the set, this came out full volume over his sound system, which was... er... distracting. I use a digital tuner with a mute button in a rack to my right at shoulder level to both avoid that and make mid-set retunings quicker: This is the ultimate solution for this problem.

Oh, the horn player, Michael Gast, was freaking brilliant! I love the french horn.

Next on the program was, From Yesterday to Penny Lane, a Beatles medley sort of thing by Leo Brouwer which I'd never heard before. Since Brouwer is one of the foremost living composers for the guitar, the guitar parts were excellent! I was really impressed that the piece started with a fugato on Eleanor Rigby but disappointed that the movements weren't connected without pause. There was a scordatura re-tuning in the middle - again, distracting - so I guess that would have been impossible. And again, the crowd loved it, so I'm probably being overly picky.

After the intermission, Dr. Dunne returned with a full orchestra to play Ponce's Concierto del Sur, which is a highly ambitious undertaking for any guitarist. He played it well, but not with the kind of abandoned bravura I think the piece deserves (Yes, yes: Too much to ask, and no, I'd never attempt that piece on a dare for vast sums of money!). But, seriously, without the amplification, you wouldn't have been able to hear Matt at all for much of the piece. And yes, there was another scordatura in the piece. Arg.

Personally, and this is just me, I think this program supported my contention that the guitar is just a lousy concerto instrument, and is much better as a solo and chamber ensemble experience. Even with the chamber orchestra of only ten strings, the guitar was out of its element, and with the full orchestra, forget it. Like I say, just me.

Tonight is Isaac Bustos, by all accounts a brilliant young player, and I'm really looking forward to it. All solo guitar, but a program of nothing but dead guy music. What can you do? LOL!

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