Heinsberg May 09

Heinsberg May 09
Heinsberg International Guitar Festival and Competition

In May 2009 I was asked to be part of the Heinsberg International Guitar Festival and Competition. This was such an amazing event that I decided to write an article about it and thought I'd share the experiences with my 'readers'. If you have ever get the opportunity to go there, I really urge you to make the effort ... if it is as good as the one I went to you'll not be disappointed. Here is the 'Report':


Since its' inception in 2005, the five-day Heinsberg International Guitar Festival and Competition (HIGFC) has seemed to arouse 'guitar fever' in and around Heinsberg, a delightful and attractive small town situated to the west of North Rhine-Westphalia and surrounded and within easy reach of Dusseldorf, Cologne, Liege and the legendary football city of Mönchengladbach. The festival takes place every two years and for this, the third one, I was privileged to be invited to be a member of the 12-person jury judging the competition. Other jury members were: Susanne Schulte (Germany), Denis Azabagic (Bosnia), Tania Chagnot (France), Graham Devine (England), József Eötvös (Hungary), Shin-ichi Fukuda (Japan), Christian Gruber (Germany), Peter Maklar (Germany), Micaela Pittaluga (Italy), Boško Radojkovic (Serbia) and Roman Viazovskiy (Germany).

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Evidence of the support which the festival receives from the locals was in abundance; to enter the town one had to pass under banners strewn across the roads announcing the HIGFC, all the main streets were festooned with flags of many nations (presumably to welcome the competitors, performers and jury members) and there were thousands of posters and handouts in cafés, bars, general shops, etc. The predicted bad weather of storms and flooding sweeping across Europe at the time seemingly gave Heinsberg a wide berth and the week became a sunbather's paradise, this sundrenched atmosphere seeming to lift the spirits of the whole populace (unless everyone in Heinsberg is always this friendly, which could true).

All jury members were accommodated in one hotel whilst most of the competitors had been housed by 'host' families scattered in and around Heinsberg. Of such high regard is the festival thought of that financial assistance was provided by the State, and Hans-Heinrich Grosse-Brockhoff, the State Secretary of Cultural Affairs, actually made the effort to attend at one of the days' activities, whilst the town's mayor attended every evening concert.

The festival began proper with an opening night concert given by Christian Gruber and Peter Maklar, one of the leading duos on the International guitar scene, and in an entertaining and polished recital, which included music by Albeniz, Ourkouzounov, Giuliani, Scarlatti and Bogdanovic, they showed themselves to be musicians of the highest ranking with warm and charismatic personalities and this proved to be a very popular opening concert.

All events took place in the centrally-situated Rathaus (Town Hall), the acoustics of which are excellent and the actual competitive part of the festival began on day two promptly at 9.30 a.m. Coming from Russia, Ukraine, Germany, France, Turkey, Spain, Poland, Japan, Brazil, Mexico, Korea, Norway, Bulgaria, Finland, Canada, Bosnia, Italy, Israel, Serbia, Australia, Indonesia (the UK was noticeable by an absence of entries), the 38 competitors had been whittled down from a much higher number of entrants who had each sent in an unedited CD recording of one of the compulsory works of either Study 2, 7 or 12 by Villa Lobos and with each participant playing up to 15 minutes in total, this first round had to be spread over two days. At the end of the first day, after listening to some superb performances which seemed to grow in technical and musical stature as the day drew on, all the jury members seemed to agree that we were in for something rather special over the next few days.

Despite being faced with a large jury, an audience of local guitar enthusiasts and many of the 'host' families for support, most players, despite their lack of years, were highly professional in their dress code, stage presence and mannerisms, the actual guitar-playing never dropping below the 'very good' mark, in fact most reaching 'exceptional' in the technical and musicianship department. Every competitor could, it seemed, play at a high rate of knots ranging from 'super-fast' to 'turbo-charged' but to make any impression upon the jury they had to display a high sense of musicianship and an understanding of the music performed rather than rely on super-quick pyrotechnics, a proviso which was unfortunately lost on a couple of the male contenders who, though fascinating and exhilarating to watch, never made it through to the second round.

The evening concert on this second day was provided by Shin-ichi Fukuda who gave a most enjoyable and 'personal' interpretation of music by Tarrega, Granados, Rodrigo, Berkeley, Castelnuovo-Tedesco and included Keigo Fujii's superb composition The Red Book of the Black Madonna, for me, easily the pivotal moment of the evening.

Day three was almost a carbon copy of the previous one with the last 20 players in the First Round vying for a place in the next day's semi-finals. The evening concert on this particular day was supplied by Graham Devine, who, after experiencing tuning problems (an unfortunate spin-off from the hot weather we were all experiencing) in the opening item - a Fantasia by David Kellner, soon settled down and gave a brilliant recital of music by Froberger, Ponce and Contreras, his performance of the Ponce works – 20 Variations and Fugue on 'La Folia de Espagne' and 'Sonata Romantica' - being for this reviewer, one of the highlights of the week's music making.

Day four and we were down to 18 semi-finalists who all had to play a free-choice programme of between 17 and 20 minutes of music from different epochs, all played from memory. On this day most players raised the bar both technically and musically and there was some extremely fine playing by nearly everyone with just a few suffering from nervous anxiety (and one strange 'mis-reading' in La Maya de Goya'!). Music chosen included works by Dowland, Froberger, Guiliani, Piazzolla, Albeniz, Sor, Barrios, Jose, Martin and several Bach pieces (including a truly magnificent rendition of the Adagio and Fuge from Bach's 3rd violin sonata BWV1005). Inevitably some pieces were duplicated including several performances of Llobet's Variations on a Theme by Sor (4 times), Rodrigo's Tres Piezas Espanolas (twice), Aguado's Andante and Rondo (three times) and a couple of Caprichio Diabolicos. (The inclusion by one contestant of Etude 12, one of the compulsory Villa Lobos studies from the first round which the jury had already heard twelve times, was perhaps not the most prudent of choices).

From these 18 players the jury had to choose 5 finalists, and due to the extraordinarily high standard of performances from nearly all involved, this time the decision was far more difficult, but in the end we came up with a unanimous choice of five names representing Russia, France, Japan, Ukraine and Bulgaria.

The evening's concert on this day was a stunner, with Denis Azabagic in superb form playing works by Bach, Torroba, Ivanovic, Ascencio and José and after three well-deserved encores, this performance provided an appropriate and fitting conclusion to the week's professional recitals.

Expectations were high for the Final and nobody was disappointed in any respect. Playing to a packed-to-capacity hall, the jury, the major of Heinsberg, local Council members and a video camera, there was obviously no pressure on these five young people all striving for first prize. Proceedings began at 7.00 p.m. with each finalist providing a programme of around 35 minutes. During the evening there were a couple of interludes before the jury finally retired to consider their evaluations and final decision.

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Several members of the jury were highly experienced at adjudicating in various guitar competitions and the universal agreement from them was that this final was one of the most exciting and musically productive ones they had ever had to vote on. However, the unanimous verdict was finally given on stage just after the stroke of midnight with the first prize going to Marko Topchii from the Ukraine, a most deserving winner, his technical control and amazing innate musicianship earning him 4,000 Euros, a 'Yuichi Imai' guitar specially made for the competition, a Marcello 'C' wristwatch and about eight concert engagements around Europe. Other prizes went to Koki Fujimoto (2nd prize), Gabriel Bianco (3rd prize), Vladimir Gorbach (4th prize) and Magdalena Kallithea (5th prize).

I have no idea what the atmosphere is like in Heinsberg in a 'normal' week, but during the festival there is certainly an observable buzz in the air and for me, and most likely many other people involved in this affair, it was an event I'll remember for many a day.

Heinsberg is providential in many ways: the geographical situation makes it easily accessible from all approaches; also the townspeople are fortunate enough to have in their midst the very genial and seemingly indefatigable Theo Krings and Roman Viazovskiy, the main driving forces behind the organisation of this impressive, entertaining and highly-polished festival; and last but not least, the word Heinsberg lends itself to a 'Guitar-Logo' designer's heaven, with the left side of the 'S' and the right side of the 'B' forming both left and right sides of a guitar shape used throughout all the advertising. What a stroke of luck that! Now if Krings and Viazovskiy were living in say, Mönchengladbach, things may have been different.

updated: 5 years ago