Correction to This Article
This article about Washington as a mecca for the guitar misstated guitarist Berta Rojas's nationality. She is Paraguayan, not Uruguayan. She also has stepped down from the directorship of the Ibero-American Guitar Festival, a post she held for four years.

Washington is once again taking pride of place in its classical guitar tradition

SPREADING THE WORD: Thanks to classical guitar teacher Sophocles Papas, D.C. emerged as a center for young guitarists.
SPREADING THE WORD: Thanks to classical guitar teacher Sophocles Papas, D.C. emerged as a center for young guitarists. (David S. Papas)
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By Anne Midgette
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 24, 2010

In 1920, musical life in Washington was spotty. There wasn't an orchestra, an opera company, a proper concert hall. But when a Greek immigrant named Sophocles Papas settled here, there was, soon enough, guitar.

Papas, self-taught himself, began teaching others. An initial radio performance led to curiosity about the elegant sound he got from what people tended to think of as a populist instrument, leading to more performances and more students.

He opened a guitar shop, organized a guitar orchestra, cultivated a friendship with Andrés Segovia and continued spreading the guitar gospel. Eventually Washington emerged as something of a mecca for young guitarists around the country. In the 1960s, American University became the first academic institution in the country to offer a classical guitar major; Papas, of course, was among its teachers.

Today, musical life in Washington is burgeoning, and the guitar, this season, is once again taking pride of place. Washington already boasts the Marlow Guitar Series, which starts its 17th season this weekend with a recital by the Chinese guitarist Xuefei Yang. The Uruguayan-born guitar soloist Berta Rojas is gearing up for the fifth annual Ibero-American Guitar Festival here in June, which she organizes.

And Strathmore is getting in on the act with an ambitious season-long focus on the guitar that attempts to display the instrument in a number of its myriad stylistic forms, from new music to bluegrass to jazz. It's the largest festival Strathmore has done yet, running from September into May.

But holding the spotlight on the guitar can be difficult. It tends to waver. Is "guitar" the classical instrument espoused by Papas, with nylon strings; or the electric guitar that's a staple of most rock bands; or the Chinese pipa, or the early music lute? And is a "guitar scene" in Washington a solid tradition -- the late Papas's store, the Guitar Shop, is still going strong on Connecticut Avenue -- or simply a random assortment of isolated practitioners who all happen to be in proximity?

The classical guitarists who run the Marlow series, including the series's director, Tim Healy, are artistic heirs of Papas, but have little in common with, say, Chuck Brown, the "godfather of go-go," one of the District's most famous guitarists.

Tom Cole, an editor at NPR, has been hosting "G Strings," a weekly program focusing on guitar, on Washington's Pacifica Radio for more than 30 years. "I think all guitarists feel a certain kinship," he says, "but they're also a very odd breed."

Shelley Brown, Strathmore's vice president of programming, found that assembling a year-long examination of guitar was "much more difficult" than the piano festival that Strathmore did last year. "The history is much less documented" than the piano, she says, "and more disparate, and maybe more interesting." Trying to do justice to the guitar's rich history in a single season was, she says, "humbling."

"I underestimated how much interesting content there was," she adds. "I could have done three times the amount of programming and educational programs that I did."

It's notable that she didn't pick a local focus. There are certainly local elements in the festival -- for instance, the world premiere in May of a new piece by Aaron Grad, an area composer-guitarist who recently moved to Washington state. But Washington's self-awareness as a center of guitar seems to have waned -- although there are many practitioners who keep it active.

The Marlow series does carry the torch for D.C. guitar traditions to some extent -- at least in that its namesake, John Marlow, a member of the Washington Guitar Quintet and the AU faculty, was a Papas student. The Marlow series also continues to focus mainly on the tradition Papas espoused -- though Papas wasn't too particular about who or what he taught, from banjo to bouzouki. (According to another former student, Regis Ferruzza, he even once gave accordion lessons, keeping a couple of weeks ahead of his pupil with the aid of a practice book.)

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