By Julietta Jameson
If there are matches made in heaven, then surely this was one of them.
South Australia had a fledgling international guitar festival. Australia had a virtuoso guitarist with a stunning talent. In 2008, the two came together.
“I’m always pinching myself,” says the virtuoso, Slava Grigoryan, artistic director of the 2016 Adelaide International Guitar Festival, “because it’s an absolute dream non-playing job for me.”
“I never thought I’d be involved in a festival other than playing the instrument. When it came up, it was terrifying but very exciting. Sometimes it feels very new and sometimes it feels like an old glove. But my passion for it is growing more and more. I feel very blessed.”
Grigoryan had a huge career behind him when he came on board at the festival in 2008.
He was widely known for his astonishing classical ability, but less perhaps for his range, collaborating with his brother Leonard on many projects among other outreaches.
But it’s this broad vision that really has enhanced the Adelaide International Guitar Festival.
2016 marked the fourth festival under his tutelage.
Now on in August and biennial, it was on yearly in November for the first three years.
It started with a critical bang but, says Grigoryan, “It was on at a warmer time of year, so it had a large outdoor stage.
“Commercially it had a very different outlook and it didn’t work.
“It was great for launching the brand, but for Adelaide it was too big too soon. So we took it back to something small and intimate and with each year, it’s grown and become more loved so it’s becoming easier and easier to attract fantastic stars from the guitar world.”
The result of that rescaling and mandate to grow it organically has allowed it to establish as one of the most important events of its kind in the world.
“It celebrates the guitar in all its elements from singer-songwriters to heavy metal, jazz to instruments from 500 years ago. It’s a huge canvas to work with,” says Grigoryan.
One aspect of that is the Adelaide International Classical Guitar Competition, the most prestigious guitar competition in the southern hemisphere, adjudicated by a panel of established players and teachers from around Australia as well as some of the high profile international artists performing at the festival.
Prodigy plugged in from the start
Grigoryan himself was the youngest finalist and winner of the Tokyo International Classical Guitar Competition, a milestone he achieved in the mid-‘90s.
The feat catapulted him into stardom with a record contract and a string of solo albums and international tours to follow.
Needless to say, the instrument that has defined his life is very dear to his heart and he programs the festival “to involve everyone and really celebrate the instrument”.
“I’ve done and love a lot of different genres and different ways of playing. A lot of things out there genuinely excite me. There are things in every genre that are fantastic.”
Programing the festival, Grigoryan says, is “a bit like a jigsaw puzzle”.
The standard genres such as classical and jazz must be ticked off plus some surprising ones, as must a mix of up-and-coming artists, local artists and of course, the big headliners.
That keeps both the “diehard guitar fans” happy as well as the more casual or broad music lover.
“There are definite waves of people who come in, depending on the mix of artists: large groups from Asia, and die hard fans from Europe.
“There are only a handful of festivals like this in the world that do this on this kind of scale so for guitar fans out there, this is as good as it gets and it’s a wonderful attraction.
“But a lot of the performances are completely inspiring and fantastic for anyone who’s into any kind of music,” says Grigoryan.
“We might have a wonderful songwriter who happens to be a good guitarist but most people don’t take notice of that. People will come out to hear the amazing voice or songs and then see the artist in a different way. I love it when that opportunity comes up; when someone who is known for their songs comes and relishes the pressure of having their fingers being on show a bit more than usual.”
It’s not just great programing that makes the Adelaide International Guitar Festival so notable.
Grigoryan says it’s Adelaide itself that contributes mightily.
“The more I’ve seen of this town and the more I’ve experienced other festival cities, the more it makes sense for Adelaide to host this festival,” says Melbourne-born Grigoryan.
“In a huge metropolis, and let’s put Melbourne and Sydney into that category straight away, there’s stuff happening all the time, whether that’s a festival or not and, you know, there is obviously a huge population to support that.
“But wonderful towns like Adelaide, or Montreal or Salzburg, they can actually take over the spirit of the city whether it’s for a couple of days or a few weeks. It’s so easy to get around for people who come in. They don’t walk out of their hotel room and go: where the hell am I? It’s an easy place to negotiate while the locals get on with their normal life and join in as they please.”
City of vibrant hubs
And as much as Grigoryan is relishing his role at the festival, he’s also loving the chance to get to know Adelaide.
“It is a fantastic place,” he says. “Touring, I was never here for more than one night and only got to see the city after a show – and going back 10 years, there wasn’t that much to see after 10 o’clock at night. But once you get to know the place, it’s just amazing: the sea and coast, the hills, the wineries – it’s a very unique place in Australia. All throughout the city the laneways are being turned into little vibrant hubs. And there is more and more music in these places, which is of course, wonderful.”