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Viva La Guitarra!

Meet La Guitarra California, a three-day celebration of classical guitar

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Russ De Angelo describes classical guitarists as the computer nerds of the music world.

“You have to have an analness to play this instrument,” he said.

- A GUITAR NERD’S DREAM :  Croatian-born classical guitarist Ana Vidovic will perform the closing concert in addition to sharing her expertise in a master class during the La Guitarra California 2011 festival. -  - PHOTO COURTESY OF CAL POLY ARTS
  • PHOTO COURTESY OF CAL POLY ARTS
  • A GUITAR NERD’S DREAM : Croatian-born classical guitarist Ana Vidovic will perform the closing concert in addition to sharing her expertise in a master class during the La Guitarra California 2011 festival.

The director of the La Guitarra California festival, a biennial weekend devoted to classical guitar, De Angelo reckons no student of the craft would ever pick up the instrument if he or she truly understood the difficulty its eventual mastery would entail.

“But once you get proficient, and that takes a lot of time, then the whole thing opens up to you,” he explained. “You’re able to create music at your fingertips. It’s powerful. To me it’s the most powerful thing. But it seems like a savage beast. And yet—why are we so attracted to it?”

De Angelo ought to know. After 12 years of rigorous practice, he still considers himself an amateur.

Fortunately, La Guitarra, held this year at the Cal Poly Performing Arts Center, boasts a lineup of true masters. Pepe Romero, Ana Vidovic, Roland Dyens, the Chris Jacome Flamenco Quartet, and the San Francisco Guitar Quartet are a few of the musicians and groups on the program. Held Sept. 9 to 11, the festival offers a mix of master classes and concerts, a free lecture by composer and Cal Poly professor Dr. Craig Russell, a guitar maker exhibit, and a chance to view—and even play!—the Forderer Collection of Rare and Historic Guitars.

- THE SFGQ :  The San Francisco Guitar Quartet opens the three-day festival with its all-embracing sound, which pays homage to guitar’s roots in both classical and folk traditions. Expect everything from Brazilian rhythms to Bach. -  - PHOTO COURTESY OF CAL POLY ARTS
  • PHOTO COURTESY OF CAL POLY ARTS
  • THE SFGQ : The San Francisco Guitar Quartet opens the three-day festival with its all-embracing sound, which pays homage to guitar’s roots in both classical and folk traditions. Expect everything from Brazilian rhythms to Bach.

Basically, it’s a pretty big deal. But it wasn’t always that way.

Following his two years at USC, De Angelo moved to the Central Coast in 2003 and became involved with the local guitar club, then called the Guitar Circle, the group initially charged with planning La Guitarra.

Since its beginnings at Cuesta College in 1999, the festival had led a labor-of-love existence, born more out of passion for the craft than any monetary incentive. The first event drew a modest hundred or so attendees, who packed into folding chairs in conference rooms to see local masters perform on a rickety stage. Guitar makers—or luthiers—and other vendors displayed their wares in the school’s cafeteria.

“Each one became a little more popular,” De Angelo remembered. “The 2003 [event] was the first really successful festival.”

He recalled the festival’s director at the time, Reed Gilchrist, taking pains to teach him about classical guitar—and showing him the ropes of running La Guitarra.

“I remember wondering, ‘Why is he telling me this about the festival?’” De Angelo said. “I started taking lessons with him. It was really casual. I studied with Reed for about a year, until the 2003 festival. And right after that, Reed passed away. It was really shocking because Reed was the real mover and shaker in this area for classical guitar. And his passing left a vacuum.”

- THE MASTER! :  Spanish-born musician Pepe Romero basically represents the pinnacle of his craft. You can’t get much higher than this guy. His head constantly hurts from bumping against the ceiling of greatness. -  - PHOTO COURTESY OF CAL POLY ARTS
  • PHOTO COURTESY OF CAL POLY ARTS
  • THE MASTER! : Spanish-born musician Pepe Romero basically represents the pinnacle of his craft. You can’t get much higher than this guy. His head constantly hurts from bumping against the ceiling of greatness.

Despite his grief, De Angelo knew someone needed to carry La Guitarra forward. And thanks to Gilchrist’s patient grooming, he knew exactly what to do.

The 2005 festival, which De Angelo dedicated to Gilchrist, was the biggest success in its history. Having outgrown the facilities, La Guitarra relocated in 2007 to Allan Hancock College’s Marian Theatre in Santa Maria.

The year marked a turning point for the festival. It was held in a real theater, for one thing. But it also attracted far more international talent, like the Bulgarian band Triada—a guitar group comprised of three brothers—and even Spanish master Pepe Romero, who became a festival mainstay.

But one of the year’s most pleasing surprises was a talented, painfully beautiful young Croatian woman named Ana Vidovic.

“She’s this virtuoso. The thing about Ana is she’s too pretty. She’s just stunningly gorgeous. It’s kind of like the beauty takes away from the real talent,” said De Angelo, shaking his head. “I said, ‘Ana, you should just come onstage with a bag over your head.’ Sometimes you can’t get past that beauty.”

Vidovic, then on the cusp of an international career in music, went on to be maddeningly successful, likely leaving a trail of smitten guitar nerds in her wake.

- MINGLE WITH THE MASTERS:  La Guitarra California, a three-day festival of classic guitar, takes place at the PAC and Spanos Theatre Sept. 9 to 11. For more information, a full schedule, or to buy tickets, visit laguitarracalifornia.com or pacslo.org—or call Cal Poly Arts at 756-ARTS. -
  • MINGLE WITH THE MASTERS: La Guitarra California, a three-day festival of classic guitar, takes place at the PAC and Spanos Theatre Sept. 9 to 11. For more information, a full schedule, or to buy tickets, visit laguitarracalifornia.com or pacslo.org—or call Cal Poly Arts at 756-ARTS.

Born into a musical family in the small town of Karlovac, near the Croatian capital of Zagreb, Vidovic picked up the guitar at the age of 5. By 7, she was performing publicly; by 11, internationally. She was the youngest student at Zagreb’s National Music Academy at the age of 13.

“It was quite an honor,” Vidovic said in a phone interview. “They were all 18, 19 years old, but they really accepted me. That was a wonderful time in my life, and I learned a lot.”

Vidovic, who now lives in Baltimore, regularly performs recitals in Europe, the United States, and Asia. She returns to the festival this year, and in addition to offering a master class, she’ll perform the event’s closing concert on Sunday evening.

De Angelo said festival attendees aren’t necessarily classical guitarists themselves; they’re simply people interested in the instrument or in music in general.

“Our mission is to expand the understanding and appreciation of classical guitar in all of its forms,” he explained, “and having concerts is the best way to get people in—and then expose them to what a classical guitar is.”

And perhaps, after enjoying a recital by Spanish master Pepe Romero, after seeing Vidovic coaching her master class (attendees have the option to participate or observe), or perhaps after cradling a gorgeous rare guitar at the festival’s vendor fair, a few guests might be inspired to take up the instrument themselves. But don’t expect greatness overnight, as any classical guitarist can tell you.

“Another thing about this instrument in general, and classical guitar especially: It’s difficult to play. You ask anyone that knows in the orchestra, they’ll agree,” De Angelo said.

“And when you see a real, true classical guitarist, you see the dedication,” he concluded. “All that comes out. You know how difficult this is, and they make it look easy.” 

Arts Editor Anna Weltner knows the difference between biannual and biennial. Contact her at aweltner@newtimesslo.com.

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