Dr. Gamil T. Arida had been a benefactor of arts education at Blue Ridge Community College during his lifetime, and his estate has endowed continuing support. As a part of that support, the Arida Arts Symposium has for each of the past 16 years celebrated an artist or performer from Western North Carolina. The 2008 celebration focused on Steven Walter, who is both a performing artist on the classical guitar and a renowned guitar builder. Walter’s third identity, teaching guitar and music history at Furman University, was touched on through a master class at the community college in the morning. This review concerns the evening event, a one-hour recital followed by a presentation on guitar building.

We were taken on a whirlwind tour of twentieth-century Latin America with Steven Walter’s first five selections.

Guido Santorsola was born in Italy, raised in Brazil, and resident in Montevideo, Uruguay for most of his career. Multitalented, Santorsola was renowned as a violist as well as a performer on classical guitar. His “Preludio from Three Airs of Court” is a fascinating combination of baroque and romantic idioms, and made a thought-provoking opener.

Walter described the next three selections as “testing” preludes, used by him to test the playing qualities of a guitar. The prelude by Heitor Villa-Lobos (Brazil) required good bass response, a lyrical prelude by Augustin Barrios Mangoré (Paraguay) tested the higher registers, and a whimsical prelude by Antonio Lauro (Venezuela) checked out blend and separation. At least on this first hearing, the Barrios prelude was less interesting musically, but the other two were first-rate compositions that demonstrated not only the quality of Walter guitars but also the virtuosity of Walter’s technique.

We continued our tour of Latin America with El Decameron Negro, one of the most highly regarded compositions of the contemporary Cuban composer Leo Brouwer. The suite is based on African folk stories, with titles that translate as “Harp of the Warrior,” “Escape of the Lovers from the Valley of Echoes” and “Ballad of the Young Lady in Love.” If there was a moment in the concert when one held one’s breath, it was during the performance of the “Harp of the Warrior” with its demands on the performer. Some players hold back in this work in order to assure a letter-perfect performance, but Walter took the work at the tempo that he felt musically appropriate, and left us gasping at the singularly beautiful results.

Turning to the well-known Spanish composer Joaquin Rodrigo, a “Fandango” and a “Zapateado” from Tres piezas Españolas were presented. The Zapateado was exceptional in its very clear fast passagework, excellent voicing and dynamics. 

Fernando Sor was a Catalan musician active in the Napoleonic era, and obliged to leave Barcelona for London and Paris after making bad political choices. The concert concluded with Sor’s work “Variations on a Theme of Mozart’s The Magic Flute.” Walter commented that in fact the theme does not quite occur in Mozart’s opera. Apparently Sor slightly misremembered what he had heard in the opera house. Nevertheless, this 19th century work was a delightful close to an all-too-short concert.

Following intermission, Walter gave an illustrated lecture on guitar building. He has made 143 guitars and sold every one to serious performers. To perform this concert on one of his own instruments he had to borrow #139 back. He explained the shortage of first-growth Brazilian rosewood (an endangered species) and the alternatives for the back and sides. He explained the use of Englemann spruce for soundboards, mahogany for necks and ebony for fingerboards. He sketched the history of how he came to be a builder, with an early start as a teenager, and with the key period being while he was a graduate student at Florida State University studying guitar performance. He became the de facto in-house technician for 55 guitar students. In the process he played and studied the construction of many fine instruments, learning the characteristics that make a guitar truly great. Clearly, Steven Walter learned well.