“He’s on top of the world” – Harold Gretton interview in Canberra Times

The Canberra Times’ writer Philip O’Brien featured Harold Gretton in Times2 on 5 November 2008. Click here to go to the Canberra Times article.

Canberra classical guitarist Harold Gretton recently returned from a summer in Europe where he competed in several international guitar competitions. Not surprisingly, the standard of competition was intense. But what made Gretton stand out from other players was the individuality and freshness of his performance, often flouting current European trends in classical guitar playing. He ended up winning not one but three of the competitions, and his happy dilemma is now what to do with all the guitars he received as prizes.

Gretton is a product of the Australian National University School of Music’s guitar department where lecturer Tim Kain has encouraged a similar individuality in all of his guitar students. A number of these students have won impressive awards in international competitions over the past decade.

Gretton began playing guitar at the age of seven and undertook the pre-tertiary program at the ANU School of Music while he was a student at Narrabundah College. In 2001 he began his Bachelor of Music studies at the School of Music, completing them with first-class honours in 2006 and winning the Bernhard Neumann prize for most outstanding graduate. He is a PhD candidate at the school, studying with his mentor Kain.

”From the time I first heard Tim in concert, I’ve always looked up to him as a performer as much as a teacher,” Gretton says. ”He’s maintained a successful performance career while still being absolutely committed to his students.” And since 2006, Gretton has performed together with Kain as a member of the Canberra-based guitar quartet Guitar Trek and has also played with the Canberra Symphony Orchestra.

In 2006, Gretton made his first trip to Europe, studying in Paris and playing concerts in Austria, Spain, the Czech Republic, Romania and Italy. He also competed in several competitions, winning first prize in the International Competition of 20th Century Guitar Music Interpretation in Lagonegro, Italy. He returned to Europe the following year, winning two more guitar competitions in Austria and Spain and again in 2008, with first prizes in the Coria International Guitar Competition (Spain), the Transylvania International Guitar Competition (Romania) and the 10th Sernancelhe International Guitar Competition (Portugal).

”One of the things I’ve observed in Europe is a stifling adherence to whatever is [musically] in fashion,” he says. ”Australian audiences are more open-minded and that enables performers here to develop their own ‘voices’ much more easily. But, in many of the guitar festivals and competitions in Europe, I noticed a strict articulation of playing and no overlapping of notes. Yet what made the guitar so popular in the early 20th century was its resonance. So, when I played the Bach Preludes, for instance, I would let the notes ring and then watch the range of reactions among audiences and musicians.”

Kain says, ”It’s very pleasing to see Harold’s talent now acknowledged internationally… [He] has an innate ability to communicate powerfully with audiences.”

Other award-winning graduates from the School of Music’s guitar department include Bradley Kunda, Minh Le Hoang, Jacob Cordover, Matthew Withers and Aleksandr Tsiboulski.

Why has the department been so successful? The answer clearly lies with Kain’s inspirational teaching over the past 26 years. Kain continues to enjoy an impressive career as a performer, including chamber, orchestral, solo appearances and successful tours with John Williams. But he prefers to mix performance with teaching, reaching out to a new generation. His students say that his performance career keeps him in touch with what’s going on in the guitar world, all of which he shares with them.

”He’s a very patient teacher,” Gretton says. ”He waits to see what each student needs rather than try to force his own ideals. He has high expectations of his students but everyone is able to be themselves, to have their strengths recognised and abilities developed.”

”It’s about building their confidence,” Kain says, ”enhancing what they already have. It’s also a collaborative environment; I approach them as equals. The ‘grand maestro’ approach of past decades is a big mistake. I try to be an ongoing mentor, often keeping the communication channels open with students long after they’ve graduated.” But Kain also sees the success of his guitar students as a group achievement for the ANU School of Music. ”These students are nurtured and supported by all staff right across the school because they study other subjects and that input is highly valued by me as well as the students.”

When Australian-born guitarist John Williams toured Australia several years ago, he noted that the guitar would be the musical instrument of the 21st century. ”The guitar is no longer merely a classical instrument,” he said, ”it’s now the foremost instrument in world music.”

Kain agrees. ”This is the era of the guitar. This is our heyday, when the guitar is thriving in all its forms. It’s a period when a lot of different styles of music are coming together in contemporary classical music and the guitar is right there at that meeting point.”

Harold Gretton and Bradley Kunda Classical Guitar Concert, Friday, at Wesley Music Centre, 20 National Circuit, Forrest. Doors open at 7pm for concert at 7:30pm. Tickets: adults, $20, concessions/students, $15.


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