Columbia’s dedicated piano and guitar festivals stand as testament to classical music gravitas

From The Free Times

Article by Kyle Peterson

Southeastern Piano Festival, June 12 – 19, various locations

Southern Guitar Festival & Competition, June 11-12, Columbia Museum of Art

Sergei Babayan

Sergei Babayan is among the top performers at the Southeastern Piano Festival.

This weekend, two of Columbia’s most remarkable and unlikely cultural offerings return: the 14th annual Southeastern Piano Festival and the 5th annual Southern Guitar Festival & Competition. That these two classical music celebrations exist here at all, let alone on the same weekend, is quite curious, particularly given how they both bring in world-class talents that regularly fill the biggest concert halls in the larger cultural meccas of the world.

And while the SEPF has the advantages of an older, more assured history and the infrastructural support that comes from existing within the University of South Carolina’s large system, the story of these two festivals is remarkably similar.

“What we found from the very beginning is that there is an incredible amount of support for music in Columbia,” says Joseph Rackers, Program Director of SEPF and a USC School of Music faculty member. “When we started it and it was in its first year, so many community members came forward with financial support, moral support, overall encouragement, that it really motivated us and convinced us that this is the place [for the festival].”

Older, But Still Growing

SEPF has grown every year since its first in 2003, bringing, Rackers says, “as much world-class talent to Columbia in one week” as they possibly can. There’s also a strong educational component to the festival, which functions as a high-level training program for teenage pianists as well as a showcase for classical piano’s leading lights.

“The festival was always designed with a goal in mind that the new generation of pianists need to have world-class role models,” offers Marina Lomazov, the festival’s artistic director, also on the USC School of Music faculty. “We bring these amazing artists in, and they are communicating and living side-by-side with the students. It creates a sort of symbiosis of inspiration, of training, of big-brother kind of relationships. It’s been like that from the beginning. And that part is one of the bedrocks of the festival.”

The prestigious Arthur Fraser International Piano Competition takes place all day Friday, June 17 at the USC School of Music Recital Hall and features the 20 talented young pianists taking part in this year’s festival, but there are other performance highlights. Sergei Babayan of The Juilliard School and Cleveland School of Music will perform twice on Tuesday, June 14 at the Columbia Museum of Art, offering the entirety of Bach’s The Well-Tempered Clavier, a collection of two series of preludes and fugues in all major and minor keys. Ann Schein, whose storied career includes stints at the Peabody Conservatory and the Aspen Music Festival and School, will also play. Schein, celebrated for her performances of Chopin, will be perform selections from Schumann, Chopin and Beethoven’s oeuvres for her Thursday, June 16 performance at Trinity Cathedral.

But the festival is about more than just bringing in top talent.

“It’s also about how the different artists complement each other as you place them one night after another,” Rackers explains. “You’re not going to put five Bach specialists in a row.”

Beyond that, the curation is mainly about each pianist’s innate talents.

“We look for people that have an individual voice, who we really feel like have a sincere approach in how they communicate with the audience,” Lomazov explains. “Everybody senses that communication.”

Younger, But Equally Ambitious

Amaral Duo

Duo Amaral is among the top performers at the Southern Guitar Festival & Competition

For all the surface-level differences between the more independent weekend affair that is the Southern Guitar Festival and the growing behemoth that is the SEPF, there are strong commonalities — down to another Marina, guitarist Marina Alexandra, leading the way.

Alexandra started the festival five years ago, though she says she had been thinking about the project for a decade.

“You have a huge amount of guitar players who are released from USC every year, plus we have this big major festival going on in Charleston,” she explains, alluding to the the coastal city’s Spoleto Festival, a world-renowned 17-day arts celebration. “I thought that would be a great start for us and a big audience draw, since participants would travel through Columbia.”

Like SEPF, the Southern Guitar Festival sought to draw international talent while also serving local audiences. Organizers didn’t have the same kind of university support, so they relied on patrons and an annual Guitar Gala fundraiser along with assistance, in various years, from the South Carolina Arts Commission, the City of Columbia and the National Endowment for the Arts to accumulate their budget.

Alexandra’s ideas for the festival didn’t start with the level of ambition that her piano counterpart did, but the event’s star quickly rose in the world of classical guitar.

“When we started it was more targeting the local audience and serving the local community, just because we had so many guitarists. We had like maybe two classical guitar concerts a year,” Alexandra points out.

“It started local, I did not have many ambitions, and it just kind of started growing on its own,” she continues. “The first year I hesitated to call it the ‘Southern International Guitar Festival.’ … But as the years were passing, we’re not only producing the international winners, but our festival is in all major national guitar magazines, we’re advertised by the Guitar Foundation of America, we are on the map. And I only really realized this after we started getting these contestants from other countries. Every year the winner has been from another country [outside the United States].”

This year’s Guitar Festival headliners include Duo Amaral, a group that comes out of the Peabody Conservatory of Music with a prestigious international performance background, and Janet Grohovac, who recently completed a performance doctorate at the University of Texas in Austin and won first place as a soloist in last year’s festival. Alexandra echoes Lomazov and Rackers in how the event chooses its performers.

“They have to be great entertainers,” she says. “Playing the right notes at the right time, so many people can do it, so many of them extremely well. I’m looking for a true artist that really can inspire somebody, really engage the audience. And I always look for ensembles and soloists.”

Like SEPF, a big part of the Southern Guitar Festival is the competition, as well as the educational component, with multiple workshops occurring over the course of the weekend.

Openness Is Key

The final key to both festivals is inviting newer, younger audience members and performers into their ranks. For SEPF, this takes the shape of an opening Piano Extravaganza that takes place in the Johnson Performance Hall at the Darla Moore School of Business on Sunday, June 12. The multimedia performance features 16 hands, eight performers, and four pianos charging through a commissioned work that bridges medleys of 2015 pop hits. Four of the pianists will be professionals, and four will be young musicians under the age of 13 who won their slots through an open audition that drew contenders from North Carolina and Georgia.

“We’ve found that more and more people who attend the Piano Extravaganza are new listeners, people who maybe have been to a classical music concert before but maybe haven’t,” Rackers says.

Alexandra has similar designs for Saturday’s new Guitar Idol SC event, a competition aimed at non-classical guitarists ages 10 to 18. Performers are invited to play acoustic or electric, in any genre they choose.

“Classical guitarists can sometimes be very snobby in what we do,” Alexandra admits. “Most of the musicians who are trying to make a living as concert players, we realize that if we’re going to continue with the old traditions and be very strict to what we’ve been taught, we will just not survive.”