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The Guitar Society of Toronto – By Eli Kassner

(This article was published in Guitar Canada, Spring 1989, Volume 2, Number 4).

Eli Kassner
Eli Kassner

It was shortly after WWII. The people of the world were picking up the pieces and trying to put them together again to start a new life. On the one hand, there was great despair over the horrible events that took place in the past, but on the other hand there was hope, incredible energy, dedication and faith in the future. It was during this time that I arrived in Toronto. When I came to Canada I spoke very little English and, having to support a family, I looked for work, any kind of work. I had studied guitar and music since I was 8 years old and I knew quite a lot about classical music. Luckily I was able to find a job in a music store – Whaley, Royce & Co. at Yonge and Dundas, which in 1951 was the biggest in Toronto. At that time Toronto was a very sleepy and unexciting large village.

There was little cultural or artistic activity in Toronto, but because of that there was also much room to grow. There was a lot that needed to be done. Over the next two decades Toronto was going to change radically to become the vital metropolis we know today.

The classical guitar was virtually unknown in Canada and was thought of as some kind of novelty instrument. The only classical guitarist was Andres Segovia, who was greatly admired as a musician of almost supernatural ability. It was also at this time that Segovia’s long-playing records first appeared in the stores and people began to hear the miraculous sounds that the great master was able to elicit from his six strings.

The inevitable started to happen. People wanted to imitate Segovia. Gradually more and more people started to look for classical guitars, guitar music and strings. I was able to convince my employers at the music store that they should import some guitar music and stock up on classical guitars.

Another very important development took place at that time: the invention of nylon strings. Those of us who had to struggle with gut-strings (the only classical guitar strings available until then) will appreciate the significance of this event. Suddenly it became possible to keep a set of strings on your instrument for months at a time without the constant threat of strings snapping in the middle of a performance or the unceasing bother of keeping your guitar in tune. Now it became possible to seriously study guitar using proper instruments and to learn real guitar music arranged by the great master himself, Andres Segovia.

It was in this atmosphere of great expectations that a group of six guitarists, whom I got to know in my capacity as a sales clerk at Whaley Royce & Co. decided that we would meet from time to time to play for each other and to simply enjoy each other’s company.

Being a guitarist in Toronto at that time was a very lonely existence and it was a great joy to find another kindred spirit. There was John Bonfield, a British engineer who played guitar as a hobby; Eugene Lucas from Yugoslavia who was teaching all kinds of instruments and played the guitar very beautifully; Bob Carter, a true aficionado, who learned to play the guitar while spending some time in Mexico and John Perone who was a fine flamenco guitarist. There was also Norman Chapman, who as a sailor in the Canadian merchant marine visited Brazil frequently and had the good fortune to have studied, albeit irregularly, with Isaias Savio in Sao Paolo. He became a good personal friend and I learned a great deal from him. He was then the only guitarist I knew personally who could actually play Tarrega’s “Recuerdos de la Alhambra”. We met several times and had some wonderful evenings performing our somewhat limited repertoire for each other, comparing fingerings and exchanging what little information we had about matters dealing with the classical guitar technique and literature. And when we ran out of solo repertoire we sang Mexican and Spanish songs, strumming lustily with lots of rasgueados and golpes.

Nowadays it is relatively easy to find qualified teachers who can guide a student from the very first stumbling steps up to the highest virtuoso level. In the 50’s, however, this was virtually impossible. As a result, everybody was self-taught and had to literally re-invent the art of playing the classical guitar. The available instruction books were old-fashioned, often very inaccurate and misleading when dealing with technique. Those that were more up to date were very difficult to follow without a teacher. One day a customer at the store heard me practice a Bach Gavotte, and he asked me if I would be willing to teach him. I told him that I had no teaching experience, but that if he would agree to be my guinea-pig, I would do my best to teach him what I knew. Thus it happened that I became a guitar teacher. Other students soon followed. Eventually I was able to quit my day job and make a living teaching classical guitar.

As the number of students grew and meetings became larger and more diversified, we felt that it would be beneficial for all of us to formally establish a guitar society. In 1955, Andres Segovia gave a concert in Toronto after not having played here in many years. This was the first time that I actually heard the great master in person and, needless to say, it was an incredible experience for me and my many guitar friends who flocked to the Eaton Auditorium on College Street where the concert took place. After the concert, some of us went backstage to congratulate the Maestro and to get his autograph. Andres Segovia subsequently returned to Toronto every year.

The secretary of the Guitar Society was at that time Isabelita Alonso, a beautiful Spanish lady who sang Spanish songs and whom I accompanied on some radio and live television shows. In 1957, she and I spoke to Segovia telling him about our Society and the growing interest in the classical guitar in our city. He was very kind and encouraging and told us about the New York guitar society of Vladimir Bobri and Albert Augustine. We asked him then if he would agree to become our honorary president and, much to our surprise, he said yes! During his next visit to Toronto, he attended a party we gave in his honour at the home of Dr. Bill Goodman and officially accepted his honary title. On this occasion some of us, including myself, performed for the Maestro. This was a very harrowing experience. Afterwards, Segovia invited me to come and study with him in Santiago de Compostela, in Spain. With the help of the Canada Council, I was able to do so.

By now we had 60-70 members and we were a very enthusiastic and enterprising group. Ken Young, who had studied with me for a while, became the secretary of the Society. He was a lover of the guitar and an enthusiastic and capable organizer. We organized monthly meetings and concerts featuring our own members and published a monthly newsletter called the Guitar Toronto Bulletin. In our hunger to hear more guitar, we dared to become impresarios and to bring international artists to Toronto. The first of these was Rey de la Torre, a very prominent Cuban-American guitarist who lived in New York and who had studied with the legendary Miguel Llobet. That venture was an artistic and financial success. We didn’t lose any money and in fact made a small profit which was designated to become our scholarship fund. Every time Segovia came to Toronto, he told us about the new and promising young artists appearing on the guitar scene: Narciso Yepes, Julian Bream, Alirio Diaz, John Williams, Ida Presti and Alexandre Lagoya, Oscar Ghiglia, and others. Since then, the Guitar Society of Toronto has been in the forefront of presenting the guitarists of the world to this city. An additional benefit arising from this was that because these artists came here to perform, we had the opportunity to study with them in master classes and private lessons.

Much progress was also made on another front. The guitar was not recognized by the Royal Conservatory of Music or by the University of Toronto as a proper or worthwhile instrument. It was looked upon as suitable only for folk music and jazz. To play classical music on a guitar was sneered at and ridiculed in the ivory towers of academia. In 1957, I approached Boyd Neal, Dean of the Faculty of Music at the University of Toronto, and Dr. Ettore Mazzoleni, Principal of the Royal Conservatory, with the idea of starting a guitar program in these institutions. Eventually, after much convincing, they invited me to play for them and to present an outline and a syllabus of such a guitar course. The audition and the presentation went very well and subsequently, in 1959, they invited me to join their respective faculties and to start a comprehensive guitar program. This was the very first time that any university in Canada (and I believe in North America) had officially recognized the guitar. This official recognition of the guitar, and the resulting prestige and legitimacy derived from it, gave us incentive to expand our activities. We started to commission new music for the guitar, the first of which was Harry Sommers’ Sonata.

Our own standards and expectations also began to rise. A new generation of young guitarists grew up in an atmosphere of recognition and appreciation. Our monthly meetings featured teenagers Liona Boyd, Martin Polascek, Amparin Prieto, Lynne Gangbar, Danny Beckermann, Eddie Monch, and many others who have gone on to become performers and teachers all over the world. In 1965, Julian Bream held a masterclass in Stratford, Ontario, and he expressed his amazement at the high level of accomplisment of our students. At this time, the famous German luthier Edgar Monch came to live in Toronto and made many great guitars and taught several apprentices the luthiers’ art, thereby laying the foundation for a very important group of Canadian luthiers of renown: Kolya Panhuyzen, Jean L’Arrivee, Michael Shriner, Serge de Jonge, William ‘Grit’ Laskin, and others.

As we continued to grow, we looked for fresh ideas. In one of our brainstorming sessions, I suggested that we might have a festival bringing together guitarists from Canada, the U.S., and other countries for an opportunity to hear guitar music at its best. It was then that we decided to organize an international guitar competition, which became known as Guitar ’75. This was the first such festival in North America and was indeed a marvellous affair. Joan York was the society’s secretary and at that time, with the help of many volunteers, we were able to make it happen. About 500 guitar teachers, students, composers, luthiers, and aficionados took part. For one week in June 1975, Toronto became the guitar capital of the world. We heard great concerts by Carlos Barbosa-Lima (Brazil), Leo Brouwer (Cuba), Oscar Ghiglia (Italy), Alirio Diaz (Venezuela), and the duo of Ako Ito (Japan) and Henry Dorigny (France). The winners of our first guitar competition were Sharon Isbin, Manuel Barrueco, David Leisner, and Eliot Fisk, all of whom have since achieved international fame. Since then, we have organized four more such festivals and international competitions – 1978, 1981, 1984, and 1987, all of which were exciting events.

Over the years, we continued to expand and improve. The Ken Young Scholarship Fund has helped many of our young students to further their studies by attending masterclasses here and in Europe. The fund also provides two annual scholarships for guitar students at the U. of T. and money from the fund was used for the commissioning of new guitar music. In the area of commissioning, the Society has made major contributions to the world of guitar. Some 70 new works were commissioned by our Society, including major guitar concertos by Canadian Harry Somers, Guido Santorsola from Uruguay, and Leo Brouwer, the great Cuban composer who gave us the Toronto Concerto. Our festivals and our international composers’concours Quest for New Music provided the inspiration for many hundreds of new works for guitar. We initiated a three-year cycle of provincial, national and international guitar competitions. These competitions serve the purpose of raising the standards of guitar playing and of providing an important milestone in the artistic development of our young guitarists. In 1986, in addition to our Guitar Toronto Bulletin, we started to publish a national guitar magazine Guitar Canada.

The Guitar Society of Toronto can proudly look back upon an uninterrupted 35 year existence during which time many things have changed. Guitar virtuosi are legion. Nowadays the guitar is one of the most popular instruments in the world. There are hundreds of thousands of guitar students worldwide and there are many fine teachers to show them the way. Practically all institutions of higher learning in Canada and the rest of the world now recognize the guitar as a legitimate instrument. The guitar repertoire is growing and becoming more diversified.

And the future looks bright. As the opportunites to study guitar seriously and to perform for appreciative audiences grow, so more and more talented students are attracted to our instrument. Our Society still has many important functions to fulfill. Judging by our past record, we are equal to the task.

Guitar Society of Toronto