Craig Visser

Guitarist & Composer

Hamilton International Guitar Festival and Competition 2016

Recently my partner Emily Shaw and I took a trip through southern Ontario, where we both grew up.  One of the main reasons for this trip, besides visiting family and friends, was to attend the 6th annual Hamilton Guitar Festival and Competition, hosted by Canadian guitarist Emma Rush of Guitar Hamilton.  My partner Emily is a talented luthier as well as a guitarist and she brought along one of her recently finished guitars to show at the luthier fair.  We had a great time hanging out with the other luthiers, trying out the guitars, and talking ‘shop’.  I was particularly attracted to a couple of instruments by luthiers Thomas Snowdon (New Brunswick) and Mark Usherovich (Waterloo).

The luthier fair is but a small part of a much larger schedule of lessons, concerts, and lectures.  There is also the competition, which runs all weekend and concludes on the final night of the festival.  This year, I was really only there to take in the concerts, see friends, and support Emily.  I have mixed feelings about competitions in general and don’t really feel I have the right attitude or personality for them, so for the time being I’m focusing on other things.  The artists performing this year were the Eden-Stell Duo, David Steinhardt (winner of last year’s competition), Joseph Palmer, Iliana Matos, Kevin Manderville, and the competition finalists.  I went to all of them with the exception of the competition finals (we had other family visits to fit in).

Eden-Stell were fantastic.  I’ve never heard them before and it was truly one of the most inspiring and engaging guitar concerts I’ve witnessed.  Their ensemble is flawless; incredibly balanced, articulate and full of energy.  The highlight for me was the Rameau and Poulenc keyboard transcriptions.  It was really nice to hear more Poulenc on the guitar (as far as I know we only have the Sarabande he wrote for Ida Presti).

David Steinhardt was also great.  The comfort and maturity of this young guitarist on stage seemed to extend beyond his years and he gave convincing and committed performances of the Bach Chaconne, Albéniz, Guiliani, and finished with a gorgeous arrangement of Somewhere Over the Rainbow.  Someone to watch on the guitar scene for sure.

Joseph Palmer and Iliana Matos shared the Saturday night programme, which was a great way for the festival to be more inclusive and offer more variety to participants.  It’s safe to say that Palmer wowed everyone in the room with his big sound, inspired interpretations, and jaw-dropping technical facility.  The audience was treated to a nice balance of new music for guitar as well as some new Scarlatti sonatas that Palmer arranged.  The thing that struck me most about his playing was his ability to physically convey the musical gesture or dynamic.  His body would recoil after a loud chord or he would lean in for a delicate phrase in a way that made everything louder and softer and thus more engaging.  Iliana Matos displayed a calm, assured, no frills style that has clearly been cultivated over her 30 year performing career (a milestone she was celebrating that night).  It was great to see a veteran performer take the stage and deliver a heartfelt concert of mostly Latin American or Spanish music with great sensitivity and passion that the music needs.   This ability to seamlessly switch gears from intimate passages to virtuosic bursts of speed kept me involved as a listener.

The Sunday matinee concert was given by Hamilton festival regular and favourite, American guitarist Kevin Manderville.  I loved the programme concept for this concert.  Manderville presented works by J.S. Bach and Leo Brouwer and followed each work with a contemporary piece composed as an homage to that composer.  What struck me the most about Manderville’s performance was his intelligent and memorable interpretations of the dense and challenging Brouwer pieces (that can easily be off-putting if carelessly approached).  I also found out that Manderville is the Hamilton festival’s resident prankster, so true to the Hamilton festival shenanigans, Manderville got a taste of his own medicine when the other faculty members brought out their guitars to strum along with Manderville (unbeknownst to him) at the beginning of Brouwer’s Canticum.  It was a great testament to the camaraderie and easy-going attitude amongst the festival crew and participants.

I should also mention that guitarists Rob MacDonald and Eva Beneke were part of the event schedule and delivered great workshops on guitar technique and the history/analysis of Bach’s Chaconne respectively.

If you’re a guitarist reading this blog and haven’t yet been to the Hamilton Guitar Festival and Competition, I highly recommend going.  There’s really something for every level or age of guitarist or enthusiast.  I’m already looking forward to next year.


Emily and I with her new guitar, "Olivia".

Emily and I with her new guitar, “Olivia”.

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