The annual Russian Guitar Festival: A Russian revival in its 11th installment

Russian Guitar Festival

Various venues — Thursday-Sunday, May 18-21

Oleg Timofeyev. — photo courtesy of the artist.

Oleg Timofeyev, born in Moscow in 1963 during Nikita Krushchev’s Russia, was surrounded by classical instruments as a kid. He learned cello and picked up the seven-string guitar from his dad at a time of communist rationing and tenements. He came to the University of Iowa as an artist-in-residence from 1989 to 1992, strumming the little-known guitar variant. He returned to the UI as a professor in 1999.

After dedicating his career to revivifying the seven-string, which is considered something of an antiquity in its home country, Timofeyev has performed the world over and brought the largest celebration of the Russian classical guitar to the cornstalks of Iowa (and southwestern Wisconsin) for 11 straight years.

“Never have so many people from so many countries come to perform this instrument,” Timofeyev said. He is an adjunct associate professor at the University of Iowa and the director International Annual Russian Guitar Seminar and Festival, which puts on the yearly Russian Guitar Festival in Iowa City. “This is the only classical guitar festival in Iowa. Even in Russia there are no festivals [for the seven-string guitar].”

Spread over four days and five towns, the Russian Guitar Festival will present lectures, open mics and concerts for both aficionados of classical guitar and the uninitiated. Seven artists, Timofeyev included, will feature over the course of the festival. Beginning Thursday, May 18th in Coralville with a performance of “Gypsy-Jewish Music,” the Russian Guitar Festival will continue through various events across Iowa City, Des Moines, Marion and Dodgeville, Wisconsin until Sunday, May 22 with a gala at the Congregational Church in Iowa City (see schedule below). Admission for the festival is $15, $12 for students and seniors.

Throughout the late 19th century and early 20th century there was a theoretical tug-of-war between the emerging modernist thinking in Western Europe and the traditionalist artistry of the Tsars of the Russian Empire. Many consider the works of Fyodor Dostoyevsky to mark the departure from spirituality in Russian art towards the human psyche. Guitar as a (capital-A)rt form of expression, Timofeyev admitted, has always lagged behind the innovations of painting, literature, etc. in the eyes of the Russian intelligentsia.

As a result, the Russian seven-string guitar — originating the late 18th century — was equated with minstrels of the aristocracy, Timofeyev explained, opposed to the romantic six-strings of the West. The technological revolution, coupled with the toppling of the Russian empire, caused the seven-string to be seen as a backward-thinking form of expression and became phased out.

For this reason Timofeyev will not celebrate the 100th anniversary of the October Revolution this year. Instead the Russian Guitar Festival will commemorate the 200th anniversary of Andrei Sychra’s landmark publication of four exercises on the seven-string, through which he created a template for any musician to improvise.

The Russian seven-string guitar survived the Soviet decades through an unlikely candidate: The Romani people (otherwise known as Gypsies — which is considered an ethnic category, but still carries some derogatory weight) assimilated the instrument into their folk music, with its utilitarian open G tuning (meaning that any strum across all strings will produce a chord) and nuanced complexity for improvisation.

Oleg Timofeyev (L) and Vadim Kolpokov. — photo courtesy of the artist.

Because the Romani preserved the guitar from the industrialist mindset of the Soviet era, Timofeyev always brings Romani people to the festival. This year he’s brought Vadim Kolpakov to perform Romani folk songs (Kolpakov might be a familiar name from Madonna’s “Sweet & Sticky” tour).

Following the Soviet disintegration in the 1990s, Russia has — gradually — taken to reexamining its cultural roots. Borscht and blini can be found on the menus of upscale restaurants in Moscow. Medovukha, slavic mead, can be found at fast food chains. There is an excavation of the Russian identity lost to Soviet rigidity.

“Russia today is interested in spirituality,” Timofeyev says. “They are talking about Russian guitar, the spirit of Russian guitar.”

Russian Guitar Festival Schedule

Thursday, May 18

Gypsy-Jewish Music — Agudas Achim Synagogue (401 E Oakdale Blvd, Coralville), 7 p.m.

Friday, May 19

Public Lecture: Syrcha’s Legacy — 302 Schaeffer Hall (University of Iowa), 2 p.m.
The Forthcoming Pavlov-Azancheev Edition — 302 Schaeffer Hall, 3:15 p.m.
Concert: Syrcha’s Legacy Today (Russian-Gypsy open mic to follow) — Artisan’s Sanctuary (1070 7th Ave, Marion), 7:30 p.m.

Saturday, May 20

Russian 7-Guitar Masterclasses — 302 Schaeffer Hall, 11 a.m.
Masterclasses — Folklore Village (3210 County Rd BB, Dodgeville, WI), 6 p.m.
Concert: The Best of the Russian 7-String Guitar — Folklore Village, 7:30 p.m.

Sunday, May 21

Concert: The Best of the Russian 7-String Guitar — Capitol Hill Lutheran Church (511 Des Moines St, Des Moines), 2 p.m.
Gala Concert: Festival Highlights — Congregational Church (30 N Clinton St, Iowa City), 8 p.m.

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