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From the Calgary Herald

Friday, October 15, 1999

By Robin Summerfield

 

Hitting All The Right Notes

For 25 years, the Classical Guitar Society of Calgary has been quietly nurturing guitarists, helping them hone their skills and their love of the instrument.

When Martin Watson plays classical guitar in crowded coffee shops around the city, he competes with concentration-busting coffee grinders and cappuccino machines.  His notes often struggle to be heard over the din of conversation and ringing cash registers.

Standing ovations, swaying arms attached to lighters and shouts of "You rock" are things not typically heard and seen at the end of his sets.  But that's OK for Watson.  He's not in it for the groupies, big money or fame.

"I'm not a star of any sort.  I'm definitely not rich but I'm rich in other ways," says Watson, who instead enjoys the quiet knowledge that he's doing something he loves and he's not half bad at it, either.  And he's not alone.

For the past 25 years, the Classical Guitar Society of Calgary has been quietly nurturing guitarists, young and old, from rank beginners to 'experts', helping them further their skills and love of the instrument.  Watson is just one of a 40-strong membership that meets monthly to share their passion for the classical guitar and hopefully pick up a few tips along the way.  For a group that has been in Calgary 25 years, producing concert series, hosting informal shows, performing in coffee shops, private homes, weddings, birthdays, cocktail parties and auctioning off their services at local fund-raisers, the society has enjoyed surprisingly little attention from the public at large.  But that is slowly changing.

"There's a difference today (in terms of public recognition) in the sense that people know that we exist and they didn't really before," says Watson, also co-president of the society, who believes that a 'classical guitar society' likely conjures up images in the public's mind of a bunch of 'fuddy duddies' who don't know how to have a good time.  Not true, says Watson, who hopes to clear up some misconceptions about the group, what they do, and who they are - starting with the type of music they play.

"The music itself would be appreciated but it's not known.  And I think the phrase classical guitar is misleading because it implies classical music, where it's really the guitar that is classical," says Watson, who explains that the classical guitar is slightly smaller than the regular acoustic version, slightly larger than the Flamenco, and completely different, most obviously, from the electric.  Classical guitarists don't tend to play anything heard on popular radio.  Instead, says Watson, they play early Renaissance music, from as far back as the 14th century, all the way up to modern popular music including country music, Flamenco, Celtic and everything in between.

"But it's attractive, beautiful and lovely.  It touches people, it reaches out to people.  I see it when I'm playing," adds Watson, 55, who retired two years ago from his job as a salesman for an oilfield supply company - not the type of profession one would normally associate with a creative pursuit like classical guitar.

But there is no such thing as a typical society member with a typical profession or typical personality.  They are people from all walks of life - from professionals to students, men and women, both young and old.

When people hear the words 'classic,' says Watson, "I think they think of stuffed shirts and I really don't want that to be a part of it.  Music is music and it's for the people - it's not just for a bunch of stuffed shirts.

"We are not pompous," adds Watson, who has been a society member for the past decade.  And that lack of pomposity is exactly what the society was founded on 25 years ago.

Building a support group and meeting like-minded people is what spurred Jake Salomons in the fall of 1973 to start the Classical Guitar Society of Calgary with fellow classical guitar enthusiast Antonio Rivas.  It's beginnings were humble.  Eight classical guitarists, the largest number the founders knew personally and could round up in Calgary, would meet once each month to play and practice at each other's homes over drinks and food.

Salomons, who has taught classical guitar at the University of Calgary for the past two decades, remembers those times fondly.  "There were a few of us then who were absolutely nits about it,: he says, a group of intense players who needed an outlet for playing.

After that first 'casual' year, the society registered itself with the government and teamed up with the University of Calgary Student's Union to bring in an accomplished Flamenco guitarist for a concert.  Society members chipped in their own money, with some help from the Student's Union, to bring the guitarist to Calgary for the performance.  The first concert was a resounding success and every year since it's inception, the society has hosted an annual classical guitar concert series with performers from around the world. 

In those first few years, the society brought in guitarists who charged in the range of $300 or $400 for performances.  Over the years, guitarists slowly began charging more for their services and the group found themselves paying in the thousands rather than in the hundreds for top-quality performers.  Competition with other concert series in the city wreaked havoc on the guitar society's bottom line and there were times that they found themselves close to abandoning the concert series, the mainstay of the society, altogether.

Instead, the society decided to cut back on the number of performers and bring in the smaller-name artists who charged less.  Through it all, Salomons points to the overwhelming dedication of the volunteers, the financial assistance from the Calgary Region Arts Foundation and other grant organizations and finally, a bit of good fortune.

"Just a little stroke of luck would allow us to continue.  Artists would play for very little and we had really loyal supporters," says Salomons.

And rewarding the loyal members is something Aileen Bashe, the Society's Artistic Director for the past 14 years, would like to do more often.  The society has been able to, on a number of occasions, provide scholarships to promising guitar students to take  courses they would not otherwise be able to afford.

"I think that if we could sort of become little more of an adjoined art community rather than just separate entities - that would be something I would personally like to work towards," says Bashe, who last February combined her classical guitar talents with a local dancer and storyteller for an evening of music and dance.

She hopes to do more of that in the future with the society and other groups around the city.

Until then, Bashe says, the society will continue on its same path of producing top-quality concert series with performers from around the world, getting the music heard and hopefully appreciated, providing a support system for new guitarists, and most importantly, just enjoying the music.

"It's a very beautiful instrument and it has a whole range of musical styles that you can play on it and it's too bad that people don't notice it more. But we are making our mark."