Guitar Passion: The Guitar in Australia in 2017
Vladimir Gorbach and Tim Kain in Interview with Josinaldo Costa
Sydney is preparing for the inaugural Classical Guitar Festival – Sydney (Directed by Eric Cathan), the first iteration of an exclusively classical guitar festival in town. Being myself a recent arrival in Australia, it has been a wonderful experience to be welcomed into a such an enthusiastic environment for the guitar. It has also been an experience of discovery of a mature guitar community still displaying youthful energy and potential for growth. As the festival dates near, I sat with two great names in guitar in the country to talk about their experiences. Vladimir Gorbach, recently appointed to lead the guitar program at the Sydney Conservatorium; and Tim Kain, whose successes teaching for 30 years at the Australian National University are only overshadowed by his remarkable performing career.
The Classical Guitar Festival – Sydney will take place on Nov 16-19 2017 at the Sydney Opera House and the Mosman Art Gallery. Tickets and more information at: www.classicalguitarfestival.sydney
1 – This is your second year at the Sydney Conservatorium (is that right?), after being at Cal State Fullerton for a few years as well. You were just a few miles away from Servite High School, where I used to teach. From my point of perspective – having gone through most of my education in Brazil – it was always interesting to notice that, although highly connected, the scene in the USA was rather self-contained. How did you find your experience teaching in the USA, compared to here in Sydney?
I just finished my 3rd year in Sydney, actually, and I can say that I was pleasantly surprised with the level of the students when arriving here. It’s quite remarkable that, regardless of its relatively small population, Australia manages to produce such high class musicians so consistently. It’s not unusual to find Australian-trained musicians who hold positions in prominent European orchestras, for example. The same can be said in regard to the music and arts communities themselves, and the public interest in arts and music found here goes beyond expectations. Given the proportions (the population is just above 20 million), it’s hard to overstate such achievements, not only in music and art but across many other fields. I can’t forget to mention that the Sydney Conservatorium is just a beautiful place to work in. Only a few steps away from the Opera House and the stunning Sydney Harbour, it’s definitely an inspiring location.
My experience teaching in the USA was similar; the students are just as curious and hard-working as anywhere else. One difference might be a more consistent background in classical guitar in Sydney, compared to the prevalent electric guitar that students often start with in the USA. I also had the incredible support from my colleagues, in particular Martha Masters, who continues to leads a strong program at Fullerton and LMU. To a certain extent, I agree that the guitar scene in the USA, as you mentioned, is self-contained. But I would also use the word “decentralized” to describe it, which is in fact a general characteristic of the American lifestyle. I hope this will be a continuing facet of the guitar community, as this is a mindset that I admire. It keeps things dynamic and competitive, as well as relevant.
2 – From my short experience here, I have noticed that Sydney has a very active classical guitar community. The Classical Guitar Festival – Sydney is an example of a really proactive effort to lift up and advance the classical guitar in the city’s musical scene. How do you see your role in participating in this community?
It’s been great to find such an active community here in Sydney, and I’m really happy to contribute in whatever way I can to the upcoming up festival, as well as to the regular series organized by Eric Cathan and Guitar Passion. From what I understand, the guitar circles in Sydney have typically followed the compartmented geography of the city, displaying a certain sense of disconnect between different suburbs. The Classical Guitar Festival – Sydney is a long-awaited effort to bring together the guitar professionals, students, teachers and aficionados from different parts of Sydney (and Australia) under the same roof.
3 – The Conservatorium has gone through many changes in the past few years. Any major plans, ideas, or a vision for the Conservatorium Guitar Studio’s future?
Absolutely. The idea is to make the guitar program both more accessible and ambitious. This would help a broader range of students to realize their creative potential. We need more outreach, including efforts that go beyond the Conservatorium’s own projects and activities. We’ve been already fortunate to have visiting artists like Lorenzo Micheli, Jose Maria Gallardo del Rey, Johannes Möller and others to give masterclasses for our students, and I hope to have many more.
4 – One of the main problems that Australia poses to international concert artists such as yourself is the distance to Europe and the USA. How are you finding this?
It’s much less of an issue nowadays even if compared to just 10-15 years ago. Australia attracts a much higher number of visitors every year (which, perhaps, was triggered by the 2000 Summer Olympics). The city has become a mainstream tourist attraction, rather than an exotic one. This changes everything. Now there are much cheaper, better, more direct ways to travel to and from Australia. The trips are still long, but not terribly so. I see it like this: if I can handle 5-6 hours on the plane somewhere within the USA, a 10 hour flight is just another two movies and a meal. My only concern when I travel overseas is to get over jet lag as fast as possible.
5 – Have you decided on a program for the recital during the Guitar Passion Festival? Can you tell us about it?
I’ll keep it eclectic, as I usually prefer. There will be some Scarlatti and Piazzolla. I will make sure to have the tension between the styles of the pieces I’ll play.
1 – Being new and on the ground in Australia has been an interesting discovery process for me. Over the course of any guitarist’s career, one is often in touch with something Australian: a remarkable instrument, composer, teacher or performer. Yet, the geographical distance does keep one from a concrete awareness of the guitar zeitgeist in Australia. Is that something that happens the other way around?
I think that’s it’s true that we probably feel less isolated than we might appear to the outside world. You only have to think about the ease with which social media reaches everyone now. You really have to think of two stages. Going back a little while, we were a lot more isolated here, but this has changed a lot and now I feel very connected to the world of guitar through my last generation of students, as well as through social media and Youtube. You can see almost anybody playing now. It’s a wonderful way to keep up to date and to learn about repertoire. To not only hear, but also to see what people do. If you go far back a few years, you couldn’t know how a player produced the sounds that he did. There was an awful lot of talking about hand positions and how to hold a guitar. Now you can actually see, so that’s a massive educational tool that connects everybody. My students use it a lot and they’re also willing to get on a plane and go. It’s part of that millennial outlook, where if I’ve got some cash, I’ll spend it. Hooking up with the world, learning and socializing.
Another thing that has connected Australian guitarists, i.e. the younger generation, is competitions. For some reason, this generation totally embraces the idea of competing musically. I don’t discourage or encourage them. Training students to go in competitions has never been an aim of my teaching; it’s something they do by the way. Nevertheless, there has been a large number of prizes won by ANU guitar students (over 30 first prizes from Canberra). Regardless, that’s the way these students do things and keep connected. They go to festivals, they compete, not necessarily winning, but just having an experience and being heard.
I don’t think that it works so well from over there, to here, perhaps because the opportunities available here are comparatively limited. Although that being said, there’s a lot more going on today, with new festivals in Melbourne, Adelaide, and of course, this present one in Sydney, for example.
2 – Something that you have done throughout your career that helped connect Australia’s guitar scene to the world is a strong advocacy of Australian music for the guitar. Do you have any new projects in store?
I’m recording a CD of new Australian works in Toronto for Naxos. That opportunity came up, and I value the chance to work with Norbert Kraft and the distribution that Naxos offers. This could have been done here with ABC Classics, which has reasonable exposure in Australia; but that’s where it ends, more or less. Whereas with Naxos, guitarists all over the world have an opportunity to hear it and be exposed to that repertoire. Certainly, a big part of my thinking and activity has been new pieces, new Australian music. And Australian music has had such huge blossoming over the past 30 years or so, with an enormous amount of high quality music being written. This music is often very accessible to the public, but it isn’t superficial; it has lots to say. I made it my mission to commission steadily, and obviously from people whose music I like. It’s always nice to introduce a composer to the guitar too, especially a skilled composer who hasn’t written for the guitar before.
In relation to the first question. I used to say that we’re lucky to be somewhat isolated here. You felt a sort of freedom to follow your interests without being watched and judged in a way that you might possibly be if you were in a traditional environment, where things have been done in a certain way for a long period of time. That feeling of freshness and freedom might be a feature of this country in many other ways. It happens to be the way I like to work anyways. A lot of it is not conscious, but I felt that there was no need for me to play certain pieces that so many other people have already played brilliantly. I really love the notion of working with composers and generating new repertoire for everyone to play. I got quite a strong sense of this mission for the instrument from my teacher, Sadie Bishop; and she, I think picked that up from Segovia.
3 – You have been teaching at ANU for 30 years, a leading program that has consistently graduated remarkable guitarists. Do you see any particular aspects of your teaching as a key to these successes?
I always believe that life is for living, and that has always being a big thing in my teaching, to be well balanced and happy doing what one is doing. I don’t drive people at all, but somehow seem to be incidentally good at motivating them. It’s about finding what’s in them, it’s not anything I give a student. They all seem to get motivated to play, to want to play, to spend the time and dwell deeper and express what’s in the music. And as a group here in Canberra, one of the essential elements that became stronger and more important was peer-to-peer learning. That way, they support each other. Students aren’t competitive in a sense that is detrimental to anyone; of course everyone is trying to do their best, but they play to each other and share their ideas.
4 – Guitar Trek is an exciting project, and the anniversary concert (30 years might be a record for guitar ensembles!) during the Classical Guitar Festival – Sydney l will open the event and is eagerly anticipated. Could you talk about the background to the ensemble and the program you will be presenting?
Guitar Trek started around the instruments, around a guitar maker named Graham Caldersmith, who lived here in Canberra. He came and knocked on my door in 1982 with a baritone guitar, and specifications for a guitar family of instruments exactly like the ones we use today. I thought it was a terrific idea, but I didn’t have the players to play these instruments with me at that stage. In about 1986 I applied for Australian Council funds with a student, Fiona Walsh, to commission the instruments, and she along with two other students were part of the first line-up. The group has always been student based, it’s always included my students, who came out of the department. Often they would already have graduated and be out doing their own thing for a couple of years, or longer, but I never held anyone here in Canberra for it, as I always understood the importance of them getting outside stimulation and establishing their careers. There have been five line-ups over the thirty years, but Minh Le Hoang and I have been the anchor men for a long time now.
I had an international profile that helped to open doors to the group, and the ABC took us on for our first album, which was a big success. We’ve made six so far – not a lot over 30 years. It’s never been a factory like process, but rather really high quality material generated by members of the group, through arrangements or commissions. It’s a really creative and fun thing to do. We’ve had some great works composed for the ensemble; Nigel Westlake wrote us our first original piece, which is recorded in the first album. I love chamber music anyways, as we all do; and the students learn a lot from playing with someone with more experience. I’ve learned a lot from them too, and they’re all really good players.
The program for this concert will have a fair amount of Australian music in it. The last time we played in Sydney the program was mostly comprised of lighter, more popular music, but this program will include a new work, Five Tails in Cold Blood, by Richard Charlton, written especially for the occasion and commissioned by Bill McIntyre. We also have a new work, Chasing Light by Guitar Trek member Bradley Kunda, again written especially for the 30th anniversary; and finally Phil Houghton’s News from Nowhere, one of our signature pieces, written in 1993. We’re also playing my arrangement of Serene Night, by the African composer Bau, a beautiful piece suggested to me by John Williams. We haven’t borrowed much from other ensembles’ repertoire, but at the moment we’re beginning our program with Llanura by Alfonso Montes (who loved our recording of the piece) and ending with Pachebel’s Loose Canon, both of which are LAGQ pieces.
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