Overview of the 2017 Wilson Center Guitar Festival

Two contestants enjoying a break outside at the Wilson Center Guitar Festival.  Photo credit:  Julia Crowe

Two contestants enjoying a break outside at the Wilson Center Guitar Festival.
Photo credit: Julia Crowe

The Wilson Center Guitar Festival celebrated its 5th annual international guitar competition this past August 17-19 in Brookfield, Wisconsin, with a record number of 105 contestant applicants competing for $32,000 in cash prizes, an $10,000 increase this year from past prize money. What makes this event unique is that its competition encompasses four different musical genres: classical, fingerstyle, jazz and rock/blues, and it institutes a “blind” judging system, with adjudicators assessing contestants by ear only.

The first prize winners in all four genres received $5,000 plus the opportunity to open for the headlining artist, jazz guitarist Kevin Eubanks, on the final Saturday evening concert at the 600+ seat Harris Theatre within the Sharon Lynne Wilson Center for the Arts complex.  The second prize winners in all four genres received $2,000 and the third-prize winners in all genres received $1,000.

76 semifinalists from 63 cities around the world were invited to compete in the live semi-final rounds August 18th. The countries represented in the semi-finals included contestants from Mexico, Nicaragua, Philippines, Armenia, South Korea, Japan, Bulgaria, Chile, China, Poland, Canada, Australia, Costa Roca, Venezuela, Cuba, Viet Nam and Peru.

Just one view of the extensive gallery of semifinalist profiles that greeted competitors upon entry to the Wilson Center for the Arts.  Photo credit:  Julia Crowe

Just one view of the extensive gallery of semifinalist profiles that greeted competitors along the walls of the Wilson Center for the Arts. Photo credit: Julia Crowe

“The preliminary competition round was judged by a 10 minute Youtube video submission from each contestant, which was due May 31st,” says Wilson Center Guitar Festival Manager Don Sipe.  “A panel of three judges for each genre narrowed the field to the semifinalists, announced on June 15. There isn’t a set number of semifinalists but our capacity is about 20 to 25 guitarists for each genre.”

Sue Baker, Program Director of The Les Paul Foundation, explains "The Paul-verizer" at The Discovery Center.  Photo credit:  Julia Crowe

Sue Baker, Program Director of The Les Paul Foundation, explains “The Paulverizer” at The Discovery Center, one of Les Paul’s inventions that multiplies the sound of one guitar into many. Photo credit: Julia Crowe

The highly well-organized, three-day long event opened with a competitor visit to the Discovery World/Les Paul House of Sound for an entertaining and informative excursion lead by Sue Baker, the Program Director of The Les Paul Foundation. Sue Baker, a close friend and employee of Les Paul’s, recounted vivid tales of his legendary innovations for the electric guitar as well as his contributions to the field of music recording.

After an early evening reception for the competitors, the Latin GRAMMY-nominated Beijing Guitar Duo of Meng Su and Yameng Wang performed a mixed program of impeccably delivered Bach, Scarlatti, Sergio Assad and Spanish pieces.

Yameng Wang and Meng Su of The Beijing Guitar Duo.  Photo credit:  Julia Crowe

Yameng Wang and Meng Su of The Beijing Guitar Duo. Photo credit: Julia Crowe

The hand-blown glass birds installation overhead inside The Harris Theatre, created by Oregon, Wisconsin artist Steve Feren.  Colorful, illuminated lights shine forth from the birds' bellies just before the concerts.  Photo credit:  Julia Crowe

The hand-blown glass birds installation overhead inside The Harris Theatre, created by Oregon, Wisconsin artist Steve Feren. Colorful, illuminated lights shine forth from the birds’ bellies just before the concerts. Photo credit: Julia Crowe

The second day of the festival opened bright and early with an energizing yoga class lead by registered yoga instructor Alex Druzny and accompanied by classical guitarist music from Jason Behr. Both the Jazz and Classical semifinals ran concurrently before the afternoon’s sessions of Rock & Blues and Fingerstyle semifinals. The Beijing Guitar Duo coached a number classical guitar students on their technique for a late afternoon masterclass at the same hour as Girl Guitar Creator and instructor Mandy Rowden offered a masterclass, “Adding Flare to Your Guitar Parts” for Singer Songwriters.

Beijing Guitar Duo masterclass.  Photo credit:  Julia Crowe

Beijing Guitar Duo masterclass. Photo credit: Julia Crowe

A scene from the busy vendor hall, filled with the latest offerings of guitars and guitar gear.  Photo credit:  Julia Crowe

A scene from the busy vendor hall, filled with the latest offerings of guitars and guitar gear. Photo credit: Julia Crowe

Another highlight of this year’s festival was the Ploch Art Gallery showing of rare guitars from The Eisner Guitar Collection. Advertising executive and guitar aficionado Bill Eisner worked with photographer Jay Filter to create colorful, artistic photos of Eisner’s extensive collection of rare guitars, which he began playing and collecting since youth.  In 2008, Eisner realized that rare guitars are a better investment than playing the stock market and he has since then managed to acquire at least one of every low-impedance electric guitar and amplifier designed by Les Paul when Les Paul signed his second endorsement deal with Gibson. The exhibit included guitars by master builders John D’Angelico, Gibson, Gretsch, Vox, Vega and Framus.

After the early evening announcement of the finalists in all four genres, the Harris Theatre doors opened for the CandyRat Records Fingerstyle Friday concert, featuring 34-year-old Canadian guitar champion Antoine Dufour and Youtube sensation, British guitarist Mike Dawes. Both Dufour and Dawes entertained with their self-deprecating delivery and guitar showmanship. At one point, Dawes swooped down into the dark theatre aisles to offer the audience his unmic’d, up close and personal arrangement of Prince’s “Purple Rain.”

 

 

The last day of the festival focused on the finals for the competition, with the highly anticipated announcement of the winners in all four genres, by early afternoon.  The rest of Saturday was devoted entirely to a series of masterclasses: a jazz class with Kevin Eubanks, a fingerstyle guitar class with Dufour and Dawes and a rock and blues master class with guitarist and rock/metal guitar method author Troy Stetina, in addition to a Les Paul presentation by guitarist and Hal Leonard executive Grad Smith.  The masterclasses concluded with a screening of Acoustic Uprising (Rollercoaster Films), a film documentary about the social media-driven prominence of fingerstyle guitar, featuring interviews with several of the genre’s most well-known artists.

For the final evening concert, each first place winner delighted the audience by showcasing their skills onstage to open jazz guitarist Kevin Eubanks‘ dazzling concert with his four-piece band, which featured music from his new East West Timeline album.

Kevin Eubanks and his band at the Wilson Center Guitar Festival.  Photo credit:  Julia Crowe

Kevin Eubanks and his band at the Wilson Center Guitar Festival. Photo credit: Julia Crowe

Within a day or two, The-Guitar.com will be posting notes and quotes from selected masterclasses, followed by interviews from the winning contestants of this year’s festival.

Please visit the Wilson Center Guitar Festival online for more information, including forthcoming details on the 2018 competition.

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