Home » Melbourne Guitar Festival: Harold Gretton and Hamish Strathdee

Melbourne Guitar Festival: Harold Gretton and Hamish Strathdee

by Julie McErlain

Without fanfare or spectacle, the loss of the 6th Melbourne Guitar Festival as a weekend event was replaced by an ongoing series of weekly livestreamed guitar recitals, thanks to the ingenuity of director Michael MacManus, who has rewarded aficionados of classical guitar music with remarkable and passionate recitals by Australian musicians. Almost slipping under the radar, these quiet achievers have been streamed from a variety of informal settings, locally and abroad, dazzling their audiences with their high class musicianship, love of the guitar and high quality repertoire from a wide gamut of styles and centuries.

Streaming informally from Wagga Wagga, Harold Gretton warmed us up with an opening menu of five Latin Classics, each contrasting in colour and style. Dyen’s Tango displayed gentle sensual melodies and free tango rhythms, sprinklingdramatic explosive chordal punctuations into this stylized contemporary work. Morel’s Danza Brazilera flowed smoothly and rapidly, focussing on evocative sweet and sensual melodies with florid accompaniment. Mixed meters and fluent scale passages decorated the Romantic Valse Venezolano by Lauro. Performed slowly and sensitively, Ponce’s Estrellita became a soothing, calming picturesque lullaby, with mellifluous tones and Neopolitan flavours giving us a true swoon moment. Completing this set, an unusual arrangement of a Piazzolla Tango featured bass runs in an improvisatory vibrant free form, with contemporary chords and rhythms contrasting with surprising contemplative and unaccompanied questioning melodies. Historically, Silvius Weiss was an important and prolific composer of lute music, and we were treated to a substantial Fugue and Passacaglia, where the fugue demanded serious dexterity and technically virtuosic fingerwork with voice entries being announced with extra warmth and tone colour. The formal stately dance, Passacaglia, allowed the soloist to show a more languorous, broad and full-bodied tone with a clear delineation of strengthened melody over a supportive inner accompaniment and a firm ground bass.

Rarely played, Richard Charlton’s Cloudforms is a popular work. There was plenty of sunshine in the syncopated accompaniment and lightly Latin style of Cumulus Dance. Silver Stratus was more impressionistic with deeper colours and floating harmonics, motifs highly reminiscent in shape and style of Debussy’s Reverie. Experimental sounds – palming the strings near the bridge and on woodwork, plucking the strings near tuning pegs and high on the fingerboard in free time and rubato – evoked searching, in Ring Around The Moon. Cloudburst (after the drought) brought finality with a more incisive tone, virtuosic runs and intense percussive chords.

Gretton spoke to us about his love for the colourful personalities of Canberra’s bird-life, something he missed greatly while studying in Europe. His own composition Flock is a creative five movement work, full of exuberant, quirky passages, jazzy lightly dotted rhythms and a variety of scurrying lines reflecting both the unpredictable and the familiar nature of five intriguing personalities. A Romantic Barcarolle – Julian Florida, and Waltz No 4 by Barrios Mangore rounded off a delightfully sensuous and refined program.

Hamish Strathdee’s post-graduate studies have taken him to Germany to study with Dr Tilman Hoppstock and extend his study of musicology and Baroque guitar in particular, so it was no surprise that Dowland’s Lachrimae Pavane would open his program with thoughtfulness and calmness, before leading us to a transcription of Bach’s Partita No 1 for Keyboard. Strathdee’s technical brilliance shone with his very clean and precise ornaments, cross-string trills and vibrant tone colours. His personal interpretation of the Sarabande in particular was full of charm and grace, firm crescendos and touches of expressive rubato. Two robust Minuets led into a technically vivacious Gigue, with all dances displaying crisp, affirmative and fluent motion.

The avant-garde composer Toru Takemitsu, famous for his manipulations of orchestral timbres and colours was the inspiration for Brouwer’s evocative piece Hika. Strathdee showed great sensitivity and ease in creating the colours, tunings and textures of contemporary Oriental design, whether in evocative and spacey notes, or freewheeling and virtuosic lines.

Asking a guitar to depict a programmatic setting of horsemen and soldiers in a mid 19thCentury military battle, complete with imitative trumpet calls seems a tall order. Le Depart by Coste was delivered with great theatrical style. Strathdee embraced the energy of orchestral imitation, theatrical and operatic colour and movement, depicting the departure to war and a triumphant return as melodies galloped home joyfully.

Jose’s Sonata para Guitarra was more like a concerto, offering many delights – a variety of juicy themes and diverse elements in the Allegro, precision,strength and control in the dance rhythms of Minuetto, dark sorrowful tones in Pavana Triste, and percussive Flamenco chords, pulse beats, virtuosic cadenzas and harmonic overtones in the Finale.

An interactive Q & A followed both concerts, with each artist generously answering questions with warmth and informality. Encores were an appreciated bonus – Harold Gretton giving us Tarrega’s popular Recuerdos de la Alhambra, and Hamish Strathdee playing Prelude No 5 in D by Ponce.


Julie McErlain reviewed concerts presented by Melbourne Guitar Festival featuring Harold Gretton, livestream from Wagga Wagga on July 19, and Hamish Strathdee, livestream from Darmstadt, Germany, on July 25, 2020.

Photo: Hamish Strathdee. Photo supplied.

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