If one of the Canberra-trained classical guitarists John Couch or Harold Gretton wins the 51st Tokyo International Guitar Competition next month, it will be a hat-trick of victories there for graduates of the guitar department of the ANU School of Music. In 2006, Aleksandr Tsiboulski came first, and last year Minh Le Hoang won the 50th Tokyo International Guitar Competition. He will be the featured performer on the 13-concert tour of Japan which was part of his prize. Six other countries, including Italy and Finland, will be represented in the second round, and the finals will take place in Tokyo on December 13 and 14.
Couch and Gretton were selected as two of the 18 members of the second round in the 2008 competition after submitting audio CDs in the first round. Couch will be travelling to Tokyo from Germany, where he is on tour with Canberra violinist Judith Hickel promoting their debut CD Andre‚Äôs New Shoes and Gretton will go to Japan after performing in Spain.
It‚Äôs a credit to them and to the ANU School of Music and especially to Tim Kain, who‚Äôs been head of guitar studies for 27 years. Although Kain is hopeful for that ‚Äúhat-trick‚Äù and says there‚Äôs a good chance one of his students will be successful, he acknowledges that the competition is very tight. ‚ÄúThere‚Äôs an especially strong field this year; they still have to get to the final,‚Äù he says. And he admits to being ‚Äúslightly blas√© about all this. I don‚Äôt actually gear my teaching towards training competition winners. I prepare them as players, and they enter – if they win, they win‚Äù
Someone who‚Äôs far from blas√© – and who hopes the profile of guitar will be raised by the three Canberra participants in Tokyo – is the founder of the Canberra Classical Guitar Society, Dan Sloss. All three Tokyo-bound guitarists, and Kain, are among the 50 or so members of the society, which was begun earlier this year. Minh, Gretton and Kain are also members of the ensemble Guitar Trek.
‚ÄúGuitar is kind of a solo instrument,‚Äù Sloss says. ‚ÄúA lot of people sit at home and play but don‚Äôt have an audience or anyone to connect with in an ensemble.‚Äù The society aims to bring guitar enthusiasts together and to inspire the next generation of guitarists. ‚ÄúIt‚Äôs open to players and non- players and it‚Äôs not just about classical music; it‚Äôs about guitar that‚Äôs plucked in classical style rather than strummed. It ranges from very early music to Nigel Westlake.‚Äù Nor is it limited to guitars – lutes, ouds, theorbos, mandolins and viheulas are also included. Sloss, who was born in the United States and spent 30 years in the US Navy, says he only took up guitar after he retired. ‚ÄúI played piano and harpsichord, but they‚Äôre difficult things to practise on a ship . . . why did I wait?‚Äù
Kain, who was born in Braidwood, trained in guitar at the School of Music under his predecessor, Sadie Bishop, graduating in 1968. He returned to become head of the instrument in 1982. Classical guitar is extremely popular now, he says, attributing this to such factors as its connection to popular music, its intimacy, and its relatively inexpensive nature. ‚ÄúIt‚Äôs a complete instrument; you can play melody and harmony, it‚Äôs a great accompanist.‚Äù Most of his students have gone on to good careers, whether as performers, teachers, or arts administrators.
Winning competitions helps, but it isn‚Äôt the be-all and end-all. ‚ÄúThey‚Äôre still the same players the next day – although we do find the phone‚Äôs ringing a lot more.‚Äù