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A Summit of Strings in the Sierra Nevada

July 18, 2012

Stringing along, Lake TahoeThe beautiful Squaw Valley, on the banks of the Truckee River near Lake Tahoe, was a mining town that went boom then bust in the 1860s and 100 years and later gained international attention as the site of the first televised Winter Olympics. With a spectacular location in the Sierra Nevada mountains and easy access to excellent hiking, swimming, boating, and climbing, Squaw Valley is now a major tourist destination, as well as home to the Sierra Nevada Guitar Festival. This small but distinctive annual event features a laidback atmosphere and increasingly enticing programs performed by world-class artists. Visitors can stay at a lovely mountain resort and easily walk to concerts as well as to excellent dining and shopping venues.

This year the festival went well beyond the tried and true classical guitar fare. Recitals were devoted to music written by women composers, Indian classical music, 20th-century American music for just-intonation guitars, the Cuban “roots” music, a stunning Bach Chaconne, and the music of Brazilian composer and guitarist Celso Machado, as well as performance competitions for young people and emerging artists.

Women composers are seriously underrepresented in classical music. Richard Taruskin, in his Oxford History of Western Music, maintains that the necessary institutional connections were rarely available to women and suggests highlighting the music of women as a reminder that men have no monopoly on compositional talent. In this vein, the brilliant guitarist Connie Sheu gave a revelatory recital devoted to the music of distaff composers. Emilia Giuliani-Guglielmi was a daughter of the famed Mauro Giuliani and performed with him in a duo in the last years of his life. Her Variazioni su un tema di Mercadante, Op. 9, is in very much in the virtuosic classical style of her famous father, and Sheu played it with appropriate flamboyance and panache.

This small but distinctive annual event features a laidback atmosphere and increasingly enticing programs performed by world-class artists.

The Sei preludi, Op. 46, was written in the Romantic style of Emilia’s generation. The pieces are intimate and redolent of a deeply felt solitude, and Sheu responded with an expressive rubato and warm tone. The most striking work on the program was Segovia, a neoclassical homage to the early 20th-century Spanish master, by Ida Presti, an outstanding guitarist composer well-known in midcentury.

Essentialism; Just Intonation

At intermission, the eminent musicologist Margarita Mazo criticized what Taruskin calls the essentialist position, that is, that something about the musical expression of women is a direct result of their gender. All agreed that not only should music be judged on the basis of its inherent quality but also that Connie Sheu was making a valuable contribution to audiences’ appreciation of the guitar repertoire.

Giacomo Fiore, a Ph.D. candidate in cultural musicology at the UC Santa Cruz and an excellent guitarist himself, gave a fascinating lecture recital on American music for just-intonation guitar. Even though composer Lou Harrison loved what he called the the “dulcet tones” of the guitar, he long refused to compose for the instrument, because its immovable, straight frets were locked into an equal-tempered tuning system, while Harrison preferred what he considered to be the purity and variety of just intonation, a system based on the natural harmonics of vibrating strings. The advent of guitars with complex fretboards that allowed for just intonation led Harrison to write a series of works for the instrument.

The most striking work on the program was Segovia, a neoclassical homage to the early 20th-century Spanish master.

His last composition, Scenes from Nek Chand, was written for guitarist David Tanenbaum and meant for a unique instrument, a National Steel resonator guitar refretted in just intonation. The three-movement work, inspired by the sound of Hawaiian guitar music that the composer remembered hearing in his youth, as well as the artwork populating Nek Chand’s Rock Garden of Chandigarh, India, was given an inspired performance by Fiore, who brought appropriate character to each movement: sensitive introspection for “Leaning Lady,” mercurial dancelike energy for “Rock Garden,” and an admirable flexibility for “Sinuous Arcade With Swings in the Arches.” In his lecture Fiore explained the complex mathematics involved in tuning the instrument, speaking with clarity and humor, and discussed recordings of outstanding ensemble music, including Barstow for speaker and guitar, by Harry Partch, and for jim, ben, and lou written for guitar, harp, and percussion, by Larry Polansky.

Just intonation is also the preferred tuning system for Indian classical music, so it was felicitous that Thakur Chakrapani Singh also gave a recital at the festival. He performed on a slide guitar played in the manner of the traditional Indian veena. It was fascinating to hear this music on the guitar and wonderful to hear this intricate and beautiful style, having much in common with the sarod music of Ali Akbar Khan, performed on the guitar. The world-music side of the festival was furthered by the recital of Celso Machado. A Brazilian guitarist, percussionist, multi-instrumentalist, and composer, Machado draws on traditional music, such as Brazilian Baião, Samba, and Afoxé; Egyptian Maqsoum; Moroccan Gnawa; and Italian folk traditions; as well as avant garde music, as he creates his own infectious style.

Globe-spanning Music

In a world-music set that comes closer to classical guitar traditions, Cuban guitarist Rene Izquierdo performed music by Cuban composers Manuel Saumell, Ignacio Cervantes, Ernesto Lecuona, and Antonio Rojas, plus arrangements by Leo Brouwer of the popular Cuban songs Ojos Brujos, Drume Negrita, and Guajira Criolla. Izquierdo has a gorgeous sound, complete technical control, and a rhythmic sensitivity that brought to life Claude Debussy’s Arabesque #1 and Domenico Scarlatti’s Sonata in D, as well as the Cuban selections. An excellent public speaker, not to mention an outstanding guitarist, Izquierdo gave a short introduction to the works of each composer, linking their works to larger historical trends ranging from the Haitian slave revolution to American Prohibition.

Marc Teicholz is an exquisitely sensitive and skillful musician.

Marc Teicholz gave a recital that focused on traditional classical composers Bach, Schubert, Mendelssohn, and Rodrigo as well as music of the contemporary Brazilian master Sergio Assad. Teicholz is an exquisitely sensitive and skillful musician who performed a very similar program that I reviewed last year. For now I will just say that the Schubert Impromptus, Op. 90, and the Mendelssohn Songs Without Words are well-known piano pieces that sound beautiful and look formidable in Teicholz’ excellent arrangements for classical guitar. Also, that in the Festivals’ opening recital several of Teicholz’ former students Jon Mendle and Antoniy Kakamakov gave noteworthy performances: Mendle with a stylish performance of a Suite by Silvius Leopold Weiss and Kakamakov with a bravura performance of Mertz's Fantasie Hongroise.

In addition to the interesting music and the world-class performers, the Sierra Nevada Guitar Festival is also well-known for its annual Guitar Competition, run by the very able Antoniy Kakamakov. Previous competition winners have gone on to garner top prizes in other competitions and assumed significant careers in the music world. The winners of this year’s adult competition were particularly accomplished. The first-prize winner, Matthew Fish, gave a polished and moody performance of Johannes Moller’s Song of the Mother; second-prize winner John Briton presented a program of little-known guitar music by the French Les Six group; third-prize winner Max Zuckerman gave a passionate account of Frank Martin’s Quatre Pieces Breves; and fourth-prize winner Jesse Freedman gave a wild and wonderful account of Bryan Johanson’s Jimi Hendrix–inspired Open Your Ears.

Sadly, I missed this year’s competition for guitarists under age 18, yet congratulations are due to winners Sedona Farber, Sean Keegan, and Kairey Wang. I did attend the recital by the winners of last year’s youth competition and admired how much these young guitarists have accomplished. Highlights included 18-year-old Joel Valiente’s wonderful performance of Just How Funky Are You?, a fantastic new piece by Andrew York, and 15-year-old Alexander Stroud’s alternately fiery and brooding performance of La Folia Folio, a tour de force by Bryan Johanson.

Scott Cmiel is Chair of the guitar and musicianship departments at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music Preparatory Division and Director of the guitar program at San Francisco School of the Arts.