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Why a guitar orchestra? by David Grimes

Well, first of all, why not? Musicians take great pleasure in making music together, and guitarists are no different in that regard. They do, however, have fewer opportunities to play in larger groupings. Except for the guitar concertos, the guitar is rarely used in a full orchestra, and when it is, it usually only serves to add some texture. In a guitar orchestra, the guitarist can enjoy the full range of orchestral experience, from melody to accompaniment, from single lines to chords, from prominent parts to background textures. The guitar orchestra affords the possibility to perform works that are far too complex to fit on a single guitar.

Chopin was reported to have said that, “Nothing is more beautiful than a guitar, save perhaps two.” I have not been able to locate the source for that quote, and it may be apocryphal, but it’s easy to suppose that it may be close to the truth. And, the logical extrapolation would be that twenty-four guitars would be many times even more beautiful.

I have heard the complaint that there is no substantial repertoire for guitar orchestra, but that is patent nonsense. In earlier times that might have been the case, and guitar ensembles subsisted on a steady diet of arrangements (Bach, Vivaldi, etc.). These served as fine training devices, but failed to take advantage of the vast coloristic resources available to the guitarist. Over the past few decades, however, there has been an outpouring of excellent original works for guitar orchestra. A music director now has the luxury of choosing among a very large number of high-quality compositions expressly designed for larger groupings of guitars. Many of these would hold their own alongside works for any other medium. Among my own favorites are

Toccata by Bryan Johanson,

Song of Clouds by Hirokazu Sato,

Hamsa by Roland Dyens,

Elegy by Nikita Koshkin, and

Los Jinetes Enmascarados by Derek Cornett.

The final test of the viability of any performance medium is the audience response, and the cheers and standing ovations at every concert by the Orange County Guitar Orchestra offer solid evidence of the value of the guitar orchestra.


David Grimes has performed extensively throughout North America, South America, Europe and Africa as a soloist, in chamber ensembles and with symphony orchestras. He is Music Director and Principal Conductor of the acclaimed Orange County Guitar Orchestra. David’s edition of Luys Milán: the Complete Fantasías and the celebrated series, Treasures of the Baroque, are published by Mel Bay Publications, and his Mel Bay editions of The Complete Sor Studies and The Complete Giuliani Studies are staples of the teaching repertoire. David’s original compositions are now being performed by prominent guitarists throughout the world. Three collections of his works, Islands, 24 Preludes and As Ondas Verdes are now published by Editions Doberman-Yppan. Highly respected as a teacher and coach, David was Director of Guitar Studies at California State University, Fullerton, where he developed one of the nation’s leading centers of guitar instruction. For eighteen years David was President of the Guitar Foundation of America and now continues as Reviews Editor for the journal Soundboard.

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