This year, the Guitar Foundation of America is holding its convention in Austin, which has brought hundreds of classical guitarists to Austin and culminates Sunday in the International Concert Artist Competition—the winner of which receives a recording contract and a worldwide tour. The competition is down to four finalists, who will be judged by their performance on Sunday night—a sort-of American Idol for guitar virtuosos. Stay tuned for the Observer’s coverage of that event.
Friday night’s headliner was the child prodigy and flamenco virtuoso Grisha, or Grigory Goryachev—not your typical Spanish or Gypsy name. In fact, Grisha grew up in St. Petersburg during the waning years of the Soviet Union, and was trained in the art of Flamenco by his father, himself an established master teacher of the instrument. He spent his childhood playing on Soviet television, playing large concert halls across the Soviet Union and winning international contests. As a teenager in the mid-1990s he was discovered by none other than Paco de Lucia, who advocated for Grisha to get an American visa. He’s lived in the states since the late 1990s.
His concert at the Long Center on Friday night brought out a charming Austin mixture of well-dressed classical music fans and T-shirt-wearing guitar nerds. And, to be sure, neither went home disappointed. The show was a breathtaking display of sheer power, speed and stamina. He sat perfectly still, as if every muscle in his body was being used to propel his fingers. And just when you thought he couldn’t play any faster, his fingers would fly at hummingbird speed, sweeping across the strings, each note ringing out flawlessly. Each of his sets was at least an hour long, with Grisha only pausing briefly between compositions to take a quick bow, and he gave the impression he could have played all night if the audience wanted to pull out a pillow and get comfortable.
Grisha’s debt to Paco de Lucia was evident in his selections — at least of the quarter of the tune’s were composed by the flamenco genius. I’ve seen Paco play several times, and in terms of sheer virtuosity, the student is approaching the master’s skill. But there was a muscular sameness in Grisha’s approach to his material. Flamenco, emotionally, is almost a distant cousin of the blues. The best flamenco guitarists express a potent blend of pathos and masculinity, a sort-of Spanish version of ‘man enough to cry.’ Paco exudes that quality, which is perhaps best exemplified in Flamenco singers, who sound like they’re rubbing their very souls with sandpaper during performances. But Grisha is a young virtuoso, and sounds very much like one. I’m looking forward to hearing his playing after he gets his heart broken a few more times, or whatever it is that will one day imbue his flawless technique with the unrestrained soul of a true master. After all, Grisha is just 33, and already plays like he’s been practicing for hundreds of years.