This weekend, if you happen to be driving through or around Brookfield, you might hear a faint roar coming from the Sharon Lynne Wilson Center for the Arts. Thatâ€™s the sound of fierce competition, of furious fingers flying up and down fretboards, of fun and of friendships â€“ spanning the nation and even the whole globe.
Oh, and of course, music. Youâ€™re probably hearing really good music, too.
The gorgeous Wilson Center for the Arts, tucked away inside Mitchell Park, is currently playing host to their second annual Wilson Center Guitar Competition and Festival. The contest is a multi-layered festival, featuring a four-division competition, several educational master classes taught by professional musicians and a duo of public concerts from Greg Koch and Jesse Cook. Kochâ€™s performance is tonight at 7:30, while Cook takes the stage Saturday night.
"For the people competing, theyâ€™re looking at these more mature professionals whoâ€™ve â€˜made it,â€™ so thereâ€™s something to be learned there," said Jonathan Winkle, executive director of the Sharon Lynne Wilson Center for the Arts and one of the lead creators of the festival. "But for the fan of music or an amateur guitarist, just to come out and hear a Greg Koch or Jesse Cook or whomever weâ€™ve had perform at this festival, youâ€™re being transported to another place."
The real centerpiece, however, is the one-of-a-kind contest itself, which spans across four separate categories: jazz, classical, fingerstyle and rock/blues.
"To our knowledge, there is nothing like this anywhere," Winkle said. "We thought whatâ€™s the most interesting thing we could do, and thatâ€™s to mash all of that up. You often have a classical competition or a blues festival, but you donâ€™t necessarily have a competition thatâ€™s covering a lot of ground, musically speaking."
The festival's preliminary round involved a video submission call, with interested amateur guitarists recording some tunes on video (in order to best ensure there was no tampering with the sound) and sending them in. From there, the 57 semi-finalists were selected and came to Milwaukee this weekend to perform two songs each â€“ one mandatory pick and one contrasting personal choice â€“ for judges.
"I look for musicality â€“ music that would touch me, not an exhibition of technique," said Jack Grassel, a renowned jazz guitarist who served as a jazz judge and led a master class Thursday afternoon. "Does this person playing understand why heâ€™s playing music? Is he feeling it? Am I feeling something from this music that heâ€™s giving me? Thatâ€™s more important than exhibiting a knowledge of guitar technique. Thatâ€™s always the bottom line."
The best performers move onto the finals, which take place tomorrow â€“ Saturday, Aug. 16 â€“ beginning at 9 a.m. with jazz and concluding at 1:30 p.m. with rock/blues. There are more performances from the contest winners and standout guitarists throughout the evening as well. Besides Kochâ€™s and Cookâ€™s shows, all of the performances are free and open to the public.
The first place winners in each category receive $3,000, while second place wins $1,500 and third place takes home $1,000. In the end, the guitar competition will be dishing out $22,000 in prizes. Obviously, the prize money and the title of a competition winner are crucial, helpful awards for guitarists hoping to make a name in the world of music, but the contest rewards young musicians on a deeper level as well.
"Right away last year, we observed that the players really enjoyed talking with one another from different genres," Winkle noted. "All of a sudden, hereâ€™s the rock/blues player talking to the fingerstyle gal, or the classical person talking to the jazz person, and theyâ€™re having this really wonderful dialogue. Even this year, I discovered that itâ€™s happening again â€“ this wonderful interaction â€“ and they think itâ€™s cool."
"I donâ€™t really spend a lot of time with blues guitarists or jazz guitarists or even fingerstyle guitarists really," said Ben Werdegar, a young fingerstyle and classical competitor who came to the competition all the way out from California. "Itâ€™s kind of great that Iâ€™ve already met so many jazz and blues kids, that itâ€™s all together."
Itâ€™s not just genres coming together and harmonizing at the guitar contest. In just its second year, the competition has already gone international, bringing in young musicians from Puerto Rico, Canada, Israel, Australia, New Zealand and Bulgaria. Winkle recalled a casual conversation from earlier in the contest between a young American semi-finalist and another competitor all the way from Slovenia.
"It really turned into an exploration and sharing of, â€˜This is where Iâ€™m from in the world,â€™ and all of a sudden, that young American was having his worldview broadened and opened up because of this experience," Winkle said. "Thatâ€™s really a beautiful part of this. Itâ€™s not musical per se, but itâ€™s human. I think thatâ€™s ultimately what drives us in the arts, as either performers or administrators. Itâ€™s one of the most human things that we do. By bringing together people from these smaller communities of guitarists, weâ€™re creating a larger community."
Itâ€™s a community that keeps growing, in just two short years, as well. According to Wilson Center Guitar Competition and Festival manager Don Sipe, there have been 56 percent more competitors in this yearâ€™s edition, ranging from many different states and countries.
For Sipe, Winkle and everyone else at the Wilson Center, the hope is to keep it growing. Part of that might be adding genres or splitting current genres into separate categories. Winkle said that itâ€™s conceivable that the rock/blues category could split into two different categories in the future. Bass guitar, ukulele, banjo and slide guitar were also mentioned as possibilities for later contests, along with a singer-songwriter division â€“ which Winkle noted was in one of the original concepts for the festival.
Even if the divisions stay the same, however, things are looking bright â€“ both for the eager competitors and for the festival.
"There is every reason to believe that this is going to be a very important destination point for guitarists," Winkle said. "We have a larger and better quality field of semi-finalists this year, and the guitarists competing are telling us already, from day one, that next year, this is going to be huge because this is an amazing experience theyâ€™re having, and some of the best guitarists competing on the circuit today are here. Word is getting out."
Good news for the competition and festival, but even better news for those looking for some great music from some future stars.
No Talkbacks for this article.
Post your comment/review now
Disclaimer: Please note that Facebook comments are posted through Facebook and cannot be approved, edited or declined by OnMilwaukee.com. The opinions expressed in Facebook comments do not necessarily reflect those of OnMilwaukee.com or its staff.
Recent Articles & Blogs by Matt Mueller
Published May 5, 2016
After growing rumors over the past few days - and general speculation over the last decade - IKEA officially announced its first Wisconsin location, moving into Oak Creek with an estimated opening in summer 2018.
Published May 4, 2016
Happy Star Wars Day, and indeed, May the Fourth be with you. While you're keeping your eyes open for any new "Star Wars" movie news, here are some ways you can celebrate the special day (surprisingly, none of them involve screening the prequels).
Published May 2, 2016
For years, rumors of an IKEA coming to Wisconsin have just been a fact of Cream City life. According to a BizTimes report, however, those rumors might actually - finally - be turning into reality with an Oak Creek location.
Published April 27, 2016
The Milwaukee Film Festival may still be months away, but that doesn't mean awesome things aren't happening at Milwaukee Film. Take, for instance, yesterday, when news broke that the organization was chosen to receive a $10,000 grant from AMPAS.
Published April 25, 2016
We're still all broken up about the sudden, shocking death of Prince. Thankfully, several Milwaukee venues are offering opportunities to continue the Prince mourning process this week and pay tribute to his artistic genius in both music and movies.
Published April 24, 2016
Mere hours after the news broke about Prince's shocking, sudden death, I chatted with Frightened Rabbit drummer Grant Hutchison about our favorite Prince memories and music moments, as well as the making of the Scottish indie rock band's new album.
Published April 22, 2016
The weather is getting nicer. Baseball has begun. Yep, summer is here, and you know what that means: Time to head indoors to a dark theater to watch movies! Here's what to expect from this year's summer slate.
Published April 21, 2016
David Bowie. Merle Haggard. George Martin. Phife. Glenn Frey - 2016 has been exceptionally cruel and brutal in taking away some of our most universally beloved musicians and cultural icons. This morning, it unfortunately added to its list: Prince.
Published April 20, 2016
Gary Tanin has a special friendship with David Bowie's longtime producer Tony Visconti, one started on a CompuServe chat room back in 1993. Two decades later, their friendship has endured - and led to Tanin producing the debut record for singer-songwriter Jack Spann.
Published April 19, 2016
It's coming up on almost a year since WTMJ-TV anchor Mike Jacobs retired, and a replacement has still yet to be named. There are Internet rumors and rumblings, however, that the spot may soon be officially filled - and by a familiar face. And now we know.