The universe in a classical guitar


He laughs at the idea of being the “darling” of the Johannesburg International Mozart Festival, the eighth edition of which started last Saturday, but classical guitarist James Grace has been an important festival drawcard, performing during the last three years of the festival to capacity-packed venues. This year he performs a solo recital again; but he will also accompany a chamber concert and will perform as a soloist in the closing concert. He has nothing but praise for the initiative of the festival, coined as it has been by Richard Cock and Florian Uhlig. “It might look small on paper,” he says “but it punches way above its weight.”

Opting to play guitar seemed an obvious choice for a young man of a particular generation, in England, when the Beatles were burgeoning and pop stars were growing out of their parents’ garages. Grace, born in 1978, weathered all the conventional, well-intentioned questions: “Guitar? Do you sing? Do you have a band?”

“The whole band thing,” he says, “with the possibilities of electric guitar and amplification – with mechanisms and accessories – is nothing to do with what I do. The guitar for me is the instrument you have the most physical contact with while you play it. All that pushing and plucking … it’s very intimate. You hold it against your chest, and armed only with your hands, fingertips and fingernails, you experience the most extraordinary resonances with your body.”

Grace speaks also of the kind of simplicity honed by Hermann Hesse over a recorder in his novel, The Glass Bead Game: “An acoustic guitar, unlike most instruments, is something you can just pick up and play. You can take it anywhere. You don’t need to plug it in, or have to drive a truck to transport it. You don’t need to take it apart and put it together again,” he says.

Born in Kent, England, Grace grew up in a house full of music. His dad also played the guitar, and as an eight- or nine-year-old, James started private music lessons. He immigrated with his family to South Africa at the age of 10 – on the impetus of a football scholarship which his dad, a housepainter by trade, won – and James learned guitar from then Stellenbosch lecturer, Dietrich Wagner.

He returned to the UK to finish his high school education, where he was tutored privately in guitar by Carlos Bonell and then went on to study at the Royal College of Music in London, an experience he describes as “amazing!” At the college, between 1997 and 2001, Grace was what is known as a foundation scholar, which means that he successfully auditioned for a place each year and was sponsored by the institution, based on the quality of his performed work each year. “At the Royal College, I really got to see the best of the best in this field, from all walks of life.”

But a love for Cape Town was ignited in his adolescent heart in those precious years between the age of 10 and the beginning of high school. Referring to both South African cousins and the magnificence of South African rain storms, Grace knew he would be back. After he graduated from the Royal College of Music in London in 2001, he spent time in Qatar in the Middle East.

“After that I wanted to come back to South Africa. At that point in my career, I felt I could make my own way more convincingly than in London, for instance, where there are a lot more professional classical guitarists. Being in South Africa” – he has been teaching guitar for 20 years and heads the classical guitar department at the University of Cape Town – “gives me space to do what I want.”

The disciplines of teaching and recording vie in his calendar and heart: “I love teaching. It’s a very rewarding experience for me. As a music teacher, one plays a significant role in someone’s life: it’s a very unique position. You are not a parent or a friend, but there is a trust and a very special relationship that remains impartial. You inspire them. They inspire you.

“Recording is another version of making music and listening to it. It is important for posterity. Every album reflects certain stages in your personal life.” In 2007, Grace started his own recording label, Stringwise Records. “It gives me the opportunity to record what I want, to be in control of the process. The company handles everything from CD production to cover design.

“CD stores are closing, these days,” he comments on the need for artists to be proactive not only in making work, but also in marketing it. “People come straight to the artist via a website.”

Stringwise has a vision that extends beyond releasing great CDs. It plans to create an opportunity for selected graduates in music at a South African university to study further abroad. “It will be structured to provide a leg up to would-be professional musicians,” Grace emphasises that it is not for beginner musicians in need of financial assistance.

This year’s JIMF is themed ‘Alla Turca’, and as festival director Cock explains, the programme explores not only Turkish aspects in Mozart’s work, but the idea of exoticism generally. “Much of my repertoire is Spanish,” says Grace. “I’ve always loved Spanish music; there is no shortage of it in this festival’s programme.” He cites the exoticism and mystery of the classical guitar as one of the aspects that made him fall in love with the instrument.

In his solo concert on February 4, Grace will play “fantasy inspired music, featuring works from the Suite Española  (Spanish Suite) by Isaac Albeniz, the evocative Invocacion y Danza (Invocation and Dance) by Joaquin Rodrigo [whose Concierto de Aranjuez Grace performs on February 7 at the Linder Auditorium] and Fernando Sor’s popular Gran Solo.”




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