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Playing for Prestige; Prominent classical guitarists come to Buffalo for Falletta's friendly competition

Every two years, Buffalo gets a touch of Spanish glamour, thanks to the JoAnn Falletta International Guitar Competition.

There are the bittersweet strains of the "Concerto de Aranjuez" by Joaquin Rodrigo, music sure to be heard. History's most famous guitar concerto, it evokes the fragrance and beauty of a garden in bloom.

There is the thrill of competition, as eight artists showcase their virtuosity and subtleties. The guitarists arriving this week for the 2012 competition are emerging masters of the instrument, drawn by the competition's unique nature.

Victory in the Buffalo contest can do a lot for the career of a young player. The third prize is $1,500, the second prize is $3,000–but the top prize is $7,500, plus engagements with the Buffalo Philharmonic and the Virginia Symphony, and a valuable Spanish guitar.

Above and beyond such tangible gains, the Falletta Competition occupies a special place in the world of the classical guitar. Solo guitar competitions abound, but guitar concerto competitions are relatively few.

"I would love to play with the orchestra. That is a dream," says Tariq Harb, 31.A native of Jordan, he now studies at the University of Toronto and holds dual citizenship in Jordan and Canada. |

"It is always a highlight to play with the orchestra, such a fantastic experience. Such a fantastic energy, the fact that it is a concerto competition."

Like many a guitarist before him, Harb will be playing the "Concerto de Aranjuez."

"Because I was already playing the ‘Aranjuez,' " he says, giving the word a musical accent, "for a recital here in Toronto –I am playing it here with a pianist –I had it in my fingers. I thought I would apply."

He was thrilled to learn he was in.

"I'm really looking forward to meeting everyone," he says. "I've been to Niagara Falls, been to New York, and New Haven, Conn. And I travel a lot to Jordan. I usually visit on Christmas. But I have never been to Buffalo."

Falletta, who conducts the competition, says most of the other guitarists are new not only to Buffalo but to America.

"They are from all over the world, which is quite extraordinary," she says. "They are coming to this country they've heard of all their lives. What better introduction than Buffalo, at the most beautiful time of year? This city that celebrates them, treats them as artists rather than competitors? They leave thinking this was a cultural, beautiful haven for music."

>A gentlemanly art

All of this year's guitarists are men. The Falletta Competition has played host to women contestants in the past –appropriately, as Falletta herself is a classical guitarist. But the competitors tend to be men, perhaps because the lore of the classical guitar is traditionally gentlemanly. (Another popular concerto heard often in the competition is Rodrigo's "Fantasia Para un Gentilhombre," or "Fantasy for a Gentleman.")

Other participants this year come from Croatia, Hungary, Thailand, Turkey, Serbia and Germany. Only one of this year's guitarists, Mark Edwards, is a native-born American. He lives and teaches in Baltimore, where, seemingly oblivious to the stress of the approaching competition, he is in the process of buying a house.

Edwards entered his first guitar competition when he was 13. Since then, he has taken first prize in 28 competitions in North America.

"I use competitions a little differently from a lot of people," Edwards says. "A lot of people use contests to win prizes and sort of advance their careers. Since I did them since the beginning of my education, I do them to help me experiment with what to do on stage. I use it more as an educational tool."

Unlike Harb, Edwards has been to Buffalo before. He was here for the 2010 competition, and though he did not make the finals, the experience made him want to try it again.

"It's huge, for a guitarist, because we do so much solo playing, we don't get so much chance to play with orchestras and conductors," he says on the phone from Baltimore. The BPO, in particular, inspires him. "When I saw the finals last time the orchestra was awesome. Especially the Rimsky-Korsakov." The BPO played Rimsky-Korsakov's "Capriccio Espagnol" while the judges debated. "It was awesome," Edwards enthuses. "I wanted to have another try at playing with them."

Guitarists often return to the competition, Falletta points out. And even when they do not, they maintain their ties to our town.

"Many of them keep in touch," she says. "I read about them, and I think how well they're doing." She pauses. "When we started [the competition], I didn't know what the level would be. I didn't know what the international guitar level was. I was stunned by it. They're developed artists, totally ready for the concert stage."

As always, this year's performance level promises to be high.

Another repeat contestant this year is Nemanja Ostoich of Serbia. Two years ago, he was in the finals. The Buffalo News praised his performance. "Maybe he'll be back in two years," the review ended.

Harb, too, appears to be a front runner.

As a boy, he studied in Jordan's Queen Noor National Music Conservatory. After college, though, he went into banking. He gave up the banking career –"I wasn't passionate about it" –only in the last few years, deciding he had saved enough money to support himself while he chased his musical dream.

After that, he had to decide between the guitar and the violin. Finally, he settled on guitar. "I got into this whole competition scene fairly recently," he laughs. "It's just a year ago that I decided to attend competitions, to go to festivals and make it a full time thing."

Call it beginner's luck, but he has entered two competitions –the 2011 Montreal International Classical Guitar Competition, and the 2011 Barrios World Wide Web Competition –and won first prize in both.

Will his streak continue? In Buffalo, his competition will be keen.

In addition to himself, Ostoich and Edwards, the guitarists are Andras Csa'ki of Budapest, Hungary; Ekachai Jearakul of Ubonsatchathani, Thailand; and Sanel Redzic, of Weimar, Germany; as well as Petrit Ceku of Croatia, and Celil Refik Kaya of Turkey, both currently studying in the United States.

Whatever the outcome, Falletta predicts they will wind up as friends.

"This isn't one of those competitions where you don't speak to anyone, you hope someone comes down with food poisoning." She laughs. "The attitude is more, we're all in this together. Maybe this isn't our year, but we're all studying.

"Some of them are funny. Some are very intense. They all have their own take on the guitar, their own love for the guitar. They adore the guitar. And they're so passionate."


Tuning in

The JoAnn Falletta International Guitar Competition's semifinals and finals are open to the public. Participants will be playing with the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra and music director JoAnn Falletta. The jury includes Joann Castellani and Michael Andriaccio, the competition's artistic directors, as well as recording artists Adam Holzman and Berta Rojas; guitarist and composer Eduardo Fernandez; Tony Morris of "Classical Guitar Alive"; and Ricardo Iznaola of Denver's Lamont School of Music.

Semifinals take place at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday at WNED's studios (140 Lower Terrace, next to the Adam's Mark Hotel). They will be simulcast on WNED-TV and broadcast live on the radio on Classical 94.5 FM and News 970 AM. Tickets to the semifinals are$12.

The finals take place at Kleinhans Music Hall at 7:30 p.m. Saturday. Tickets are$37-$70.

For tickets or information, call 885-5000 or visit .