Most classical guitar events are solo affairs where the musician plays sans accompaniment.
But on Saturday night, Kleinhans Music Hall was the site of an unusual accompaniment for the instrument, the finals of the biennial JoAnn Falletta International Guitar Concerto Competition. It’s a big deal in the classical guitar world, and the number of players from around the world applying for spots seems to increase as time goes on.
Three young guitarists filtered out of the contest semifinals to earn a spot onstage with the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra, where they would be competing for a nice (putting it mildly) package of prizes and the right to tack the resulting achievement onto their résumés.
The talented trio featured Chad Ibison of the United States, Ekachai Jearakul of Thailand and Marko Topchii of Ukraine. All of them have serious “chops,” with Jearakul having made it to the finals in 2012.
Ibison played Leo Brouwer’s “Concierto Elegiaco,” the third of the composer’s 11 guitar concertos. Commissioned in 1985 by master guitarist Julian Bream, the score is filled with the sort of intricacies that one would expect from a composer who actually plays the guitar.
Jearakul opted to perform Joaquin Rodrigo’s “Concierto de Aranjuez,” a familiar and well-loved repertoire standard from 1940, one whose familiarity has been heightened via the jazz adaptation by Gil Evans (“Sketches of Spain” for Miles Davis) and pop trumpet versions from Herb Alpert and Chris Botti.
Topchii put his guitar in service to Heitor Villa-Lobos’ “Concierto for Guitar and Small Orchestra,” a work from 1951 with folkloric themes drawn from the composer’s then-youthful excursions into northeast Brazil.
In addition to the orchestral settings, the contestants also played solo pieces that they chose to showcase their skills in a more intimate framework. These smaller-scale works weren’t considered by the judges in their final decision but presented each player’s skills in a more intimate setting. It also gave the performers a shot at winning one (or both) of the other prizes offered in this competition – trophies for the audience’s and the orchestra musicians’ favorite player.
While Ibison and Jearakul gave decent performances during the first half of the evening, it was a bit like opening acts setting the table for the headliner. This isn’t to take away from their undeniable skill sets, but it just underlined Topchii’s impressive overall playing, stage presence and sheer professionalism.
Those qualities ensured that he would walk away with all three prizes, including $10,000, a return engagement with the BPO, a recording contract and appearances at Carnegie Hall and at a prestigious guitar festival in Milan. He energized judges, BPO players, and audience members with a strong technique and a palpably committed performance that was truly impressive.
Jearakul earned $3,000 for finishing second, while Ibison earned $1,500 for finishing third.
Throughout the evening, whether Falletta and the BPO were supporting the young soloists or charging through the opening and closing instrumental works by Jose Pablo Moncayo (“Huapango”) and Alberto Ginastera (“Four Dances from Estancia”), the orchestra was in excellent form. It all came together for a great night that all the finalists can be proud of.