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Montreal International Classical Guitar Festival and Competition

Posted By Connie Sheu, Tuesday, September 17, 2013

By Ann Ireland 

The hallways of the music building at Concordia University are oddly hushed this morning. Young men perch on the edge of tables, guitars on lap, tuning up or running through a piece that they are soon to play. The tension is low-key, but palpable.

The first round of Montreal’s International Classical Guitar Festival and Competition has already begun. One of the contestants is already inside the studio, playing in front of judges Jeffrey McFadden and Patrick Kearney .

Tomorrow I will appear in an on-stage interview with Jonah Snyder ( to discuss my novel The Blue Guitar. Is it a coincidence that my novel takes place at a classical guitar competition in Montreal? Not really; I attended the G.F.A. here in 2004 and made copious notes.

A door opens, and a young man scurries out of the studio with his guitar, his face pink. Another enters, hoping to play well enough to make the semi-finals. A friend from Toronto is competing in this first round; he’s only been taking lessons for a couple of years – so this is a big deal for him.

I am staying in a house with noted Scottish guitarist, Matthew McAllister. Yesterday we hiked alongside the canal discussing music and Scottish politics, my ear tilted to his Sean Connery accent. This evening, at the concert hall, Matthew plays soulful Scottish lute pieces that he’s transcribed for guitar. When he finishes, the crowd surges towards the merch table.

The amateur guitar orchestra members file on stage, dressed in black. They peer earnestly at their music stands, bi-focals in place, as the conductor, Dave Pilon, lifts his baton. The audience is jammed with relatives and friends who wave to their pals in the orchestra between pieces. This looks like major fun.

At intermission, Patrick Kearney announces the names of those who made it to the semi-final round. My friend’s name is called. I hope I don’t embarrass him by my noisy ‘Yip Yip!’

Back at the house the guest artists are bagged from a day’s work judging and performing and are keen to rehydrate with a drink or two. Soon the stories start to flow, mishaps of international guitarists, scandals, horror stories.... It occurs to me that hanging out with musicians is way more fun than partying with writers.

The semi-finalists enter one at a time and play for ten minutes – and Patrick Kearney is strict about this. In the middle of a soul-baring Adagio – tough luck, pal; you should have timed it better. Nerves are poorly concealed: hands swipe knees, then brush back hair. A smile is more like a grimace.

Matthew has a two-hour Master Class directly afterword judging the round, and when I reach him to ask – ‘You going to join us for dinner?” – he’s glassy-eyed.

‘I’m totally fried,’ he says. ‘Can’t eat. Can’t talk.’

So Jeffrey, Patrick and I hit the St- Hubert chicken joint, a must-visit for anyone coming to la Belle Province. We hoover up moist chicken, beer and bloody Caesars.

My friend didn’t make it past the semi-finals, but he’s happy to have gotten as far as he did.

Last day: After recitals and master classes and the on-stage interview with me, it is time for the the presentation of awards for the youth competition.Tim Beattie pulls off the win. A raffle is held for a brand new guitar and the kid who’d played Bach’s First Cello Suite snags the winning ticket.

Five adult finalists will now perform half hour recitals, the crescendo of the weekend. The audience has bulked up with guitarists who didn’t make it to the final round. One sits forward, elbows on knees. Another nods as a performer nails a tough passage. Another looks sleepy, maybe hung over.

Joseph Palmer’s low ‘e’ string breaks mid-stream: a loud ‘ping’ followed by a hush. He disappears into the hallway to fashion the string change. Within five minutes he’s back to continue his program. He comes in second overall. Nice recovery.

I try to figure out who will win, but I’m stymied. One performer excels in musicality, another flies by the seat of his pants and nails what seems, to this amateur player, an impossibly fast section.

The winner is Misael Barraza, Mexican. Second is Joseph Palmer from Texas. Third is Brent Crawford from Toronto.

Patrick and his team act like they’ve been released from a cruise ship stuck at sea. We head out for Chinese food, giddy with achievement.

‘What about next year, Patrick?’

‘It will be magnificent. Adam Holzman’s coming. And we have a snazzy new venue for the concerts. We’ll showcase composer Denis Gougeon –”

‘And so much more?’

‘You got it.’

If you want to hear/see an edited version of my on-stage interview with Jonah Snyder of – here’s the link:

About the Author:

Ann Ireland is a prize winning novelist, former president of PEN Canada, and coordinator of the Writing Workshops department at the Chang School of Continuing Education, Ryerson University, Toronto. Her most recent novel is: THE BLUE GUITAR published by Dundurn Press.

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