When you think of a guitar, what first comes to mind? Is it Hendrix summoning flames out of his Stratocaster? Is it Pete Townsend windmilling like a man possessed? Is it Segovia, or Julian Bream, or John Williams, hunched studiously over their instrument, their fingers cleanly picking a Bach Allemande at lightning speed? Or is it your own enthusiastic teenage strumming, when you were young and convinced you were the next God of Rock?
No matter what the guitar means to you, you will find it at the 2022 Adelaide Guitar Festival. Since 2007 the festival has been a mecca for guitarists of all ages and skill levels, presenting some of the world’s finest instrumentalists across classical, blues, rock, jazz and countless other genres.
Slava Grigoryan wouldn’t have it any other way. Artistic Director since 2010, Grigoryan has grown the festival by making it a celebration of the instrument and the people who respond to it, rather than just a series of performances. And in 2022, after two pandemic-affected years of scaled-back programs, he cannot wait to welcome everybody back to Adelaide.
The breadth of this year’s program is testament to the versatility of the instrument, from an evening saluting the essence and spirit of flamenco to a tribute to the metal gods of the 80s, alongside workshops for aspiring players as well as exhibits of both Yamaha and Australian guitars through the years.
“[That range of styles is] something I think that just comes hand-in-hand with this instrument. Maybe the human voice could be approached in a similar way because so many people dabble with singing, but it would be much harder to do this with other string instruments, or brass or woodwind,” says Grigoryan.
“So many people have a guitar sitting around, and they dip into it occasionally. Obviously there are people who are incredibly dedicated, and are all about advancing, but then there are others who are just happy with being able to do a certain amount, and that’s good enough – but they are still involved and interested. And there is certainly a place for that in a festival like this, in terms of workshops, and experiences for players like that.”
Of course, many festivals incorporate some kind of community performance into the program somewhere, usually in a very early morning slot where only the most dedicated will turn up. What is lovely about this festival is that Grigoryan has programmed these performances alongside major international and Australian artists, allowing all levels of the guitar community to sit and perform together.
The most obvious example is one of the centrepieces of this year’s festival, a concert entitled Sketches and Orchestrations, which features Chinese classical superstar Xuefei Yang alongside Brisbane’s Riverside Guitar Ensemble. But opening the concert is the Adelaide Guitar Festival Orchestra, made up of students and enthusiasts of all ages.
“Xuefei Yang is a beautiful player,” says Grigoryan. “And just a great ambassador for the guitar – she is incredibly proactive and constantly generating new work. And I think through the pandemic as well, she was one of the visibly more active players, providing a lot of online content.”
“She has been to Australia before, but she hasn’t played at the Guitar Festival. And this is an exclusive gig for us this time around. She was actually meant to be here in 2020 and then everything unravelled. So it is lovely to be able to get her back.”
“She is playing in a concert with the Riverside Ensemble, which is directed by Karin Schaupp, up in Brisbane. They are an amazing group of players. I think it averages about 20 players, and it is an unconducted group, and they are a really exciting group to listen to and to look at, as well.”
“There is so much going on, so much textural interest, and colour, and a lot of wonderful virtuosity as well. There are a few large groups in Australia, but… this is definitely the largest group of this kind of quality.”
“And before Riverside, there is actually an even larger gathering of guitarists – the Guitar Festival Orchestra. We get at least 80 players every time… Historically we have had anyone from the age of nine to 90! “Most of the participants are high school through to 20, but mostly high school. And then you have got a few mature-age players, and often some of the better university students from Adelaide will join, and it’s wonderful for the younger players to have them sitting within their ranks as well. ”
“The concert is on the Friday, but for five days that week, all of the players [in the orchestra] will have been involved in the Winter School. So they are rehearsing and working in their sections, then altogether. There are workshops, and special classes, and guest tutors, and stuff like that. So they are working from 9am to 4pm for five days, and then they have this amazing concert to be a part of at the very end, as well.”
“It’s an absolutely perfect subject for us to highlight in a guitar festival like this. And in a concert like this, where you have someone like Xuefei come out and absolutely blow everyone away with what’s possible on one guitar.”
What’s possible on one guitar will be greatly expanded by The Immersive Guitar, a fascinating new project that is equal parts instrument, concert hall and architectural marvel. A collaboration between Karin Schaupp, composer and performer Vanessa Tomlinson, famed South Australian guitar marker Jim Redgate, architect Bruce Wolfe and engineer Hassan Karampour, TIG (as it is affectionately known) is a guitar-shaped building – five metres long, four metres wide and two metres high – which began as a childhood dream of Schaupp’s to shrink herself so that she could fit inside her guitar and find out how it all worked.
(Ed. Look out for our in-depth interview with Karin Schaupp on The Immersive Guitar next week.)
“It is essentially a giant guitar,” says Grigoryan. “On the one hand it is a playable instrument, but on the other hand it is a venue – so people can go inside, and it feels like you are sitting within the body of the guitar. And it is a beautiful looking instrument, from the inside.”
“It is made out of sustainable timbers, and of course, being made out of those materials, and the shape that it is, it is a very special-sounding space… not only for its own sound, but for the sound of other instruments within it. There are six strings on the ceiling, but it is also a wonderful percussion instrument – it can be played anywhere on its body.”
Grigoryan has been watching from afar as TIG has been built and debuted in Brisbane, but is delighted that it is coming to Adelaide, and to the Guitar Festival, to what strikes one as its natural home. Grigoryan is full of plans for its future, too.
“This year, logistically, we are just getting the instrument to Adelaide for the festival, and essentially doing what was done in Brisbane when it first launched, as part of the festival. We have commissioned Karin and Vanessa to create a new work to be premiered this July.”
“But then, once it stays in Adelaide, Jim and his team will start developing the instrument further. He has drawn up plans that involve a playable fretboard, and that is going to be an amazing thing to witness bubbling away outside of festival time, and then the idea is to bring it back into the Guitar Festival with new additions and new sounds every year.”
“At the moment we are trying to find a permanent home away from the city, away from the Festival Centre. It’s so big you need a lot of space for it, so we need to find a weather proof home for it so that it can be up and used all year around… for composers to come and actually work with it, and write, and discover what is possible on the instrument.”
Another major element of the Guitar Festival is the now-annual Adelaide International Classical Guitar Competition, which since its establishment in 2010 has grown to become the most prestigious guitar competition in the Southern Hemisphere. The final of the competition will be held at Adelaide’s Space Theatre on 24 July, but the day before will see three recitals given by the three previous winners – Australian Andrew Blanch (2019), Italian Pietro Locatto (2020) and Bulgarian Pavel Ralev (2021).
Usually the Festival would only feature a concert by the previous year’s winner, but of course circumstances have forced this triple bill – something Grigoryan sees as a frustrating but ultimately beneficial outcome, providing competitors with three interesting case studies in where your career can lead.
“We would have loved to have had them back earlier – especially poor Andrew Blanch, who won three years ago and still hasn’t had a chance to come back for his Winners Recital!”
“But we will have one afternoon of extraordinary solo guitar playing, thanks to these three champs. And it will really shine a bright light onto what this competition is actually all about, and what sort of opportunities and help it can create, what it can facilitate for the next generation of amazing young players.”
“[Having all three players together show that] there is no one way [to be a guitarist]. Everyone can continue choosing their own adventure forever. But the most important thing, I think, for young players, is to challenge themselves, and to have this drive to work, and to get to a level where they are playing at their very best at a certain time. And to be surrounded by other young players who, hopefully, are better than them, and that will inspire them to go even further next time.”
“Since this competition started there has been a real lift in the level of playing. In Adelaide specifically, obviously because it’s the hometown. But before we started, no one local ever entered the competition. I think the first three or four competitions that we had, there were no locals. And now it is a regular thing. And I am sure that sooner rather than later there will be a prizewinner who is local. We have had lots of wonderful international winners, but we have also had a really cracking selection of Australian winners and finalists. And that has just proven time and again how healthy and strong the classical guitar scene is in Australia.”
Finally, one can’t ignore what might be the most exciting and surprising act on this year’s lineup: the legendary bass player from Spinal Tap, Derek Smalls (played by Harry Shearer), who will be turning it up to 11 at Her Majesty’s Theatre, supported by Australian rock royalty You Am I.
Grigoryan can barely contain his glee.
“It is so much fun. I am constantly pinching myself that this is actually happening.”
“It is such an iconic story, and obviously it has been the backbone of rock and roll for 40 years now. And it obviously takes the mickey out of rock, but it also honours it very, very well – and I think that is a great example of how there is a fine line between reverence and mockery (laughs).”
“I cannot imagine how many people would have picked up a guitar as a result of this film. And continue to do so through their parents, and now with a new one in the making who knows? It is wonderful, and great to have a band like You Am I involved. [They are] amazing, and Tim Rogers is a firecracker. And he does channel every single being that he pays tribute to like that. And they have certainly been very proud followers of Spinal Tap for many, many years. So it is definitely a marriage made in heaven.”
In This is Spinal Tap, the fictional band famously falls victim to every manner of accident and calamity – especially their poor drummers. Grigoryan is obviously hoping that, after a couple of years where the festival has been affected by a similarly incredible run of bad luck (as have we all), 2022 goes smoothly.
“We were very lucky that we could do something [in the last two years]. Last year there was a half program that we managed to deliver, and connect with audiences, and the year before we had some online stuff – but obviously never quite the same as the real thing. So we are crossing all our fingers and toes that there won’t be any new surprises. But we are incredibly excited about the prospect of a full, bigger and better festival.”
The 2022 Adelaide Guitar Festival runs 9–24 July. See the full program on their website.