Classical guitarists headed for Sydney in November tell us about their favourite pieces of music for the instrument.

Sydney is set to host a line-up of top international and local guitarists in the inaugural Classical Guitar Festival Sydney running at Mosman Art Gallery and the Sydney Opera House from November 16 – 19.

Leading Australian guitar quartet, Guitar Trek, celebrates its 30th anniversary of music-making in a special opening concert. The closing concert will be given by one of the world’s pre-eminent classical and flamenco guitarists, José Maria Gallardo Del Rey from Spain. Other artists gracing the stage over the four-day festival include young French superstar of the classical guitar, Thibaut Garcia, with a programme of French and Spanish masterpieces, and the Russian-born virtuoso Vladimir Gorbach, who leads the guitar department at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music.

Andrew Blanch, winner of last year’s Melbourne International Guitar Competition and one of Australia’s most prominent young soloists, will offer a programme of music from Latin America and beyond. The mimi duo (piano and guitar) will present a magical blend of exotic impressions from Spain and Japan and their own compositions. The Sydney Guitar Trio will be spinning yarns and telling tales with special guest Rory O’Donoghue, and the Bradley Kunda Trio (guitar, flute and voice) will showcase Australian chamber works. Hosted by Guitar Passion, the festival will also offer a line-up of exhibitions, masterclasses, talks and social events.

We asked some of the performers about their favourite piece of music for classical guitar, their personal response to it and why they love it.

Thibaut Garcia (soloist)

If I had to pick a piece as one of my favorites (which is definitely really hard because of all the beautiful pieces we have in the guitar repertoire) I would say La Catedral by Agustin Barrios. The main reason is a very personal one. My father, an amateur guitarist, played this piece a lot when I was young, and its technique and emotional aspects always impressed me, beginning in total peace, in the air, then a second part really earthy and the last movement with a perpetual movement between sky and earth. It’s a piece that everyone can understand, amateurs and professionals love it.  It was a reference for me, one of the pieces that made me fall in love with the classical guitar. It has a kind of universal language in it, perhaps because it was Bach-inspired.

Thibaut Garcia. All photographs courtesy of Classical Guitar Festival Sydney

Tim Kain (Guitar Trek)

I’m not a great one for picking favourites. As with my kids and my students, so it is with pieces of music. But if I absolutely have to, then it would have to be the second movement of Rodrigo’s Concierto de Aranjuez. Although the classical guitar repertoire is full of immediately appealing works from all parts of the world that are wonderful to play, not a lot of them plumb the depths of human emotion in the way that this piece does. The Rodrigo is one of the most well-known and outwardly beautiful of all guitar pieces. It instantly grabbed me, as it does everyone, when I first heard it in my early teens. Beneath the great lyrical beauty lies deep grief and despair and Rodrigo leads us through this emotional complexity with a mastery of structure, mounting tension and inevitability that culminates in the fortissimo orchestral tutti at the end of the cadenza. As Alirio Díaz once pointed out, when the orchestra opens up here, the feeling for the soloist is similar to being on a platform when a large train comes in at speed behind you. Playing this piece is one of the more heady experiences life has to offer. The 15 or so years needed to get your chops ready is well worth the effort…

Guitar Trek

Minh Le Hoang (Guitar Trek)

One of my favourite short works composed for the classical guitar is the Waltz No 3 by Antonio Lauro. I played it for my teacher in my first ever classical guitar lesson back in the 1990s, as I was self-taught in my early teenage years. I came across this piece from listening to a recording by the Brazilian guitarist Turibio Santos. The melody is so simple and beautiful, while underlying rhythms are quite funky and complex, and I surely loved the piece for these reasons. I still remember the excitement of playing it in the lesson and receiving proper musical guidance for the first time in my life and I cannot forget this experience to this day.

Matt Withers (Guitar Trek) 

On the program for Guitar Trek’s 30th anniversary is Pachelbel’s Loose Canon; an exciting tongue-in-cheek version of the well-loved melody, arranged by the Los Angeles Guitar Quartet, bringing together many different musical styles. Audiences will hear the beautiful theme, jazz improvisation, rock’n’roll, blue grass and MORE! Truly a hoot to play!

Andrew Blanch (soloist)

The suite for guitar and orchestra, Antarctica, by Nigel Westlake is incredible. After a time, it really hit me just how remarkably well the piece transported me into the essence of the place. Textures in the strings like glistening ice crystals in the air. I hear of the mysteries lurking down below – that deep blue mass, impossibly thick and virtually impenetrable, and the secrets it holds about our world. And I hear the human in the guitar’s sweet melodies – earnest, brave, passionate and intrepid. What an extraordinary human spirit, that compelled the early explorers to risk it all and to endure unimaginable discomfort, in the name of science and exploration. Any piece of guitar music that ignites my thoughts and imagination so wildly is a winner in my books!

Andrew Blanch

Janet Agostino (Sydney Guitar Trio)

There is one piece of guitar music that acts as a musical TARDIS for me, instantly transporting me back to the very first time I heard it and the intense effect it had on me. Madrid, 1970s. From a primitive cassette player in our hotel room came the sounds of Andre Segovia playing Romance de los Pinos by Federico Moreno Torroba. The simplicity and the poetry of the music captivated me. The previous day I had taken my entire holiday savings and walked to Manuel Contreras’ luthier shop where my 40 pounds was just enough to buy one of his guitars. I was too overwhelmed to try the guitar out in the shop so I just bought it! The combination of absolutely loving my new guitar and hearing those magical sounds of Torroba’s music filled me with awe and inspiration, and so began a lifetime’s connection to the classical guitar. Of course, I love so many works in the guitar repertoire, both to listen to and to play, but this is the one that has a particular significance for me.

Sydney Guitar Trio

Richard Charlton (Sydney Guitar Trio)

Valses Poéticos by Enrique Granados. The first guitar recording my father bought was John Williams Plays Spanish Music (1970 CBS) – this was really my first exposure to classical guitar and I was hooked from the first note! Of course, I had no idea then that this was a seminal disc and the first of many by this superstar of the guitar world. This was, in fact, the first recording of the Valses, transcribed by Williams, and I have loved them ever since. I was interested to learn later on that John mostly played them straight from the original piano edition, just changing octaves here and there, arranging the chords and basses as needed. I have transcribed and played these pieces myself, and even arranged them for a chamber ensemble at one stage. From their many guitar alliterations I came back to their original form via a recording from the Condon Collection of Granados himself playing them on a Duo-Art Reproducing Piano. I sent John a copy of this recording; he promptly sent me in return an early recording of Alirio Diaz and Rodrigo Riera playing duets! These little Valses that triggered my first real appreciation of the guitar hold many memories of people, times and places, and I still enjoy their bubbling effervescence tinged with nostalgia.

Raffael Agostino (Sydney Guitar Trio)

The guitar piece that has a special significance for me is Kinkachoo by Phillip Houghton. Shortly after moving into our new house in 1998, Phillip came over for dinner one night and after much laughter and red wine he decided to improvise on the guitar while sitting on the verandah, and the ideas for the piece came to him right there and then. He then completed the work over the next few days. It is a classic example of how Phillip could say so much and convey so much depth of feeling with just a few simple notes. Kinkachoo is but a tiny portion of the huge legacy that his “genius” has left behind for us to share.

Bradley Kunda Trio

Bradley Kunda (Bradley Kunda Trio and Guitar Trek)

My favourite piece for guitar is a very short, simple and lyrical work from Johann Kaspar Mertz’s collection of Bardenklänge entitled An Malvina (To Malvina). It is in the style of a “song without words”, and has a beautifully nostalgic melody that soars above a Schubert-like accompaniment of rippling arpeggios. I suppose I’m drawn to this piece because of my attraction to art song, the study of which currently absorbs most of my music-making time. The only thing stopping An Malvina from being a lovely example of German Lied is some poetry and a singer! When you don’t have a singer on hand, however, one must make do with playing both melody and accompaniment on the same instrument (something the guitar handles with remarkable aptitude). And so I often play An Malvina, usually at the start of every practice session, to help me feel in-tune with the instrument and to awaken my feeling for playing lyrically, which I find to be so important in making the guitar ‘sing’.

mimi duo

Setsu Masuda (mimi duo)

I have a few favourites! Recuerdos de la Alhambra and Lágrima by Tárrega, Sevilla by Albéniz, and Romance (anonymous). The one that resonated strongly with me was the Koyunbaba suite by Carlo Domeniconi, which Miloš [Karadaglić] performed in an intimate setting when he visited Perth (he was only two meters away from me!). With its beautiful Turkish folk-like theme played with such emotion and with exquisite tone, it was such a magical moment of my life.

Duncan Gardiner (mimi duo)

I also have a few favourites! I have a few really memorable moments anyhow… The first was listening to Karin Schaupp in a Perth recital in 1998 or 99. Among the works she played, I most enjoyed Giuliani’s Gran Sonata Eroica and Villa-Lobos’ Chôros. I loved the way she presented each reprise of the Choros theme in different ways to keep the audience guessing. It’s a really catchy, rhythmical piece. The second “aha” moment was listening to a Naxos recording called Cavatina. Besides the title track (Myers), the compilation disc had the most gorgeous selection of best-loved classics such as Julia Florida (Barrios), Evocacìon (Merlin) and of course, the slow movement from Rodrigo’s Concierto de Aranjuez. Both Karin’s recital and this album helped me realise that the guitar would grow from more than a hobby to become my life!