By Marc Llewellyn
Strummers and pluckers from across the globe slid into Adelaide in August 2016 for the biggest string festival of its type in the southern hemisphere.
The Adelaide Festival Centre’s Adelaide Guitar Festival took place over four days from August 11 to 14.
It was preceded by three weeks of Guitars in Bars and Other Places, when more than 300 venues across South Australia played host to guitars and guitar-related instruments.
The Adelaide Guitar Festival first struck a chord with the people of Adelaide in both 2007 and 2008.
“I was involved in those first two as a player and it was a wonderful experience,” says Slava Grigoryan, the current artistic director.
“It’s a very unusual festival in the sense that it looks at all the genres, from heavy metal through to 500 or 600-year-old Renaissance music.
“In 2010, when I came on board, we decided to make it a biennial experience and we’ve continued to include other instruments related to the guitar, like the banjo. We try to capture all the facets.”
Grigoryan was born in Kazakhstan and migrated to Australia with his family in 1981. He has released six solo albums and many collaborative recordings.
Among 2016’s Adelaide Guitar Festival highlights is a performance by the Punch Brothers. They will take the stage at the Adelaide Town Hall on the Festival’s opening night.
This world-class acoustic quintet plays mandolin, guitar, violin, banjo and bass.
The group combines their instruments with inspiring vocals. They intend to play tunes from their latest album The Phosphorescent Blues, plus other songs from their back catalogue.
The Phosphorescent Blues was nominated for a Grammy Award for the best Americana album in 2016.
“They are an extraordinary ensemble,” says Grigoryan. “They play traditional Bluegrass instruments but they’re masters of so many fields. They play their own original music 95 per cent of the time and it’s ground breaking stuff.”
Also getting top billing were husband and wife team Béla Fleck and Abigail Washburn, who are fresh from their 2016 Grammy Award win for best folk album. They brought their special blend of banjo magic to Adelaide Town Hall on August 12.
Multi Grammy award winner Fleck is recognised as one of the world’s greatest banjo players. He has recorded many albums with his band Béla Fleck and the Flecktones. Their second album, Flight of the Cosmic Hippo, reached No 1 on the Billboard Top Contemporary Jazz albums chart.
“This is the first time the duo have been to Adelaide together and we are so lucky to have them,” says Grigoryan.
“Fleck has done for the banjo what Segovia did for the guitar 100 years ago. He’s a musical Renaissance man, and his wife Abigail is an amazing singer and banjo player herself.
“They put on a rare performance of two banjos and voice steeped in Americana and early gospel music. She has a very angelic voice. It’s a very special project.”
Adelaide Town Hall also played host to the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra and other musicians for an extraordinary Guitar Festival Symphony Gala.
The gala concert started off with Rodrigo’s festive Concierto Andaluz for four guitars, featuring Australian soloists Karin Schaupp, Alex Tsiboulski, Leonard Grigoryan and Ken Murray. The piece is rarely played in Australia.
Next came a world premiere of a piece for guitar and strings composed by revered and evocative Cuban composer Leo Brouwer. The hands of Spain’s Ricardo Gallén will take the central performance role.
“Leo is the Stravinski of classical guitar. He’s been active since the 1950s,” says Grigoryan. “We’re really thrilled to secure a premiere of his. He’s selected a wonderful soloist to premiere the new piece. This will be a real jewel.”
The second half opened with Ravel’s enchanting Mother Goose suite, followed by the world premiere of Australian composer Andrew Ford’s Raga, a spectacular concerto for electric guitar and orchestra. The piece was written for stellar soloist Zane Banks, a fellow Australian.
Also appearing at the festival was the award-winning band The Panics. They will be playing highlights from their back catalogue and launching songs from their forthcoming album.
The Panics also performed their own surf-laced soundtrack in conjunction to visually poetic documentary film Girt By Sea, which celebrates Australia’s connection with the sea over the past century. The film is directed by South Australia’s Shane McNeil, and draws on visual collections, archive footage and crowd-sourced home movies.
Another offering was Tama Matheson’s Don Juan, a dramatised presentation of the satirical poem by Lord Byron. This colourful tapestry of beautifully-crafted words and music was accented with solo guitar music by acclaimed guitarist and actor Karin Schaupp.
The Wolfgang Muthspiel Trio also appeared at the Festival.
Considered one of the most influential guitarists of his generation, Austrian jazz guitarist Wolfgang Muthspiel has created a rhythm section with two of the most innovative players in contemporary American jazz, bassist Larry Grenadier and explosive drummer Brian Blade.
As well as the performances, the festival also included free and low cost workshops, masterclasses, artist talks, panel discussions and programs for emerging musicians.
Also taking place wa the Adelaide International Classical Guitar Competition, the most prestigious guitar competition in the southern hemisphere.
It attracted competitors from all over the world and provides a unique opportunity for emerging artists to gain exposure and experience on an important festival stage.
A panel of established players and teachers from around Australia, as well as a number of high profile international artists who will be performing at the festival, judged the competition.
The total prize pool was $32,000 and the winner earned a place in the 2018 Adelaide Guitar Festival program.
Locals and visitors experienced the brand new Guitars in Bars and Other Places program which saw more than 300 performers play in hundreds of venues across the city and further afield.
The performance spaces included pubs, clubs, wineries, galleries and public spaces.
Grigoryan says the idea came about from a desire to include South Australia’s great guitar players, live-music lovers and venues in the world-class Guitar Festival.
“The response has been amazing. It’s a wonderful thing for Adelaide, especially in winter,” he says. “There are so many great players, bands and venues … and Guitars in Bars is our way of getting the Adelaide Guitar Festival out into all those places and involving more artists, and more great local music.
“The diversity of live music in Adelaide and surrounds is totally invigorating and we want to celebrate it.”
Guitars in Bars was also part of Music SA’s new live music festival called Umbrella: Winter City Sounds.
This inaugural event was held from July 15 to August 7 2016 and offered a smorgasbord of live music projects across Adelaide.
The Adelaide Festival Centre’s Adelaide Guitar Festival