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Turkish guitarist wins Falletta competition; Celil Refik Kaya takes big chances with selection of intense performance pieces

Celil Refik Kaya, of Turkey, emerged victorious in the finals of the JoAnn Falletta International Guitar Competition in Kleinhans Music Hall on Saturday night.

Petrit Ceku, of Croatia, came in second, and Ekachai Jearakul, of Thailand, was third.

Kaya's prize is $7,500, a valuable Spanish guitar and engagements with the Buffalo Philharmonic and the Virginia Symphony.

Ceku took the $3,000 second prize, and Jearakul took the $1,500 third prize.

The three guitarists who made the cut for the finals did their best to influence the seven judges' decision.

But the judges weren't the only ones they needed to persuade, because the audience was choosing their favorite performer via the ballot box and the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra had their own Musicians Choice Award to hand out.

Though Kaya won the competition, Ceku won musicians and audience awards as the top guitarist in separate voting.

Before the three began their efforts, the judges -- all professional guitarists -- banded together to play arrangements of two pieces (Ernesto Nazareth's "Brejeiro" and Stepan Rak's "Rumba") for the audience. It was a pleasant-enough diversion but they could have used a more forceful boost from the sound system to make the kind of impact they deserved.

This year, a twist was added to the competition's format. In addition to each guitarist having to perform a concerto from a selected list, each got a chance to play a solo piece best demonstrating their abilities.

Thailand's Jearakul, the first guitarist to take the stage, and Ceku, the Croatian, who had the third slot, chose safe, audience-friendly, well-known works by Joaquin Rodrigo that needed a bit of "oomph" to make them stand out from the thousands of performances each piece had acquired through the years.

Jearakul's take on the "Fantasia para un Gentilhombre" and Ceku's performance of the "Concierto de Aranjuez" both had their points, with the former being more straightforward and contained in his interpretation and the latter a bit more physical and outwardly involved.

Ennio Morricone's "Love Theme from Cinema Paradiso" was a pleasant-enough solo piece for Jearakul to end up with but Ceku's rendition of Isaac Albeniz's more familiar "Malaguena" was greeted with a bit more enthusiasm by the audience.

Kaya, the competition's winner and the youngest among the finalists also was the one who, it could be said, may have taken the biggest chances. Roberto Sierra's "Folia" is an intensely focused piece that deserves more performances. The fact that Kaya's choice made "Folia" a New York premiere was a point in his favor because there were no preconceptions that the audience could make about the piece. Sierra's presence in the audience was another bonus.

As a solo piece, Kaya chose Astor Piazzolla's "Primavera Porteno," one of the four tango-oriented works that made up Piazzolla's musical portrait of the seasons in Buenos Aires.

The Buffalo contest is held every two years as a friendly competition among prominent classical guitarists, but a victory can do a lot for the career of a young player.