Withers’ guitar festival celebrates artful distancing

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Matt Withers performs “Vincent (Starry Starry Night)”.

AS countless musicians across the country sink between the waves of virus-related closures, Canberra classical guitarist Matt Withers is well and truly keeping afloat.

Not only has Withers moved quickly to transfer all his guitar students to Skype lessons, but he’s also touting an important concert coming online in mid-April by using a couple of stunning YouTube video-clips to promote his work.

But without doubt, his proudest achievement in these trying times has been the arrival of his first child, Edward, in mid-January.

He and his wife, Emma (who has been effectively in lockdown for several months now through childbirth, fire and pestilence), are bunkered down in blissful Curtin while Withers does the essential shopping and Edward, whose proud parents have surrounded him with music every day of his life, is happily unaware.

Withers, readers may recall, is a long-term member of Australia’s premier guitar quartet, Guitar Trek, but he’s also known for his entrepreneurial talents and knowledge of social media, which have allowed him to give Skype lessons as far as Dubai and China for several years now.

“But now all my students have migrated this week to Skype or other platforms,” he says, adding, “It’s a way forward, but I do hope it comes back to face-to-face contact, of course.”

“Online classes have their limitations,” he explains, because “teaching is a social interaction” and he’s often manipulating the students’ hands to get the right technique.

Alas, he’s found it necessary to cancel his planned performance showcase of prize winners in the 2020 Matt Withers Australian Music Composition competition, which would also have involved Canberra-raised composer Sally Whitwell, who wrote a piano and guitar duo specifically to be played in the concert. Thankfully, he reports, a planned ABC recording of that work has been “postponed but not cancelled”.

Undaunted, he’ll be performing favourite works, like Lennon and McCartney’s “Yesterday”, arranged by Takemitsu, and Rodgers and Hart’s “Blue Moon,” arranged by Almeida, from his recent ABC classics recording “Songs Of Yesterday” in a live-streamed recital on April 17. This is part of the Melbourne Guitar Festival’s extended program, organised and directed by guitarist Michael McManus to allow the festival to have a presence in spite of cancellations.

Matt Withers records “Vincent (Starry Starry Night)” at Floriade.

As for Withers’ YouTube videos, stunning examples of artful distancing, his recordings resulted from an artsACT grant late last year which allowed him, director Marisa Martin, cinematographer Matthew Ong and drone cinematographer Matthew Jelly to get out and about in Floriade and springtime Mount Stromlo to record “Vincent (Starry Starry Night)” and Jobim’s  “A Felicidade”, the latter winning him a new cohort of fans in Brazil.

McManus, he reports, is running the online platform for the April concert but he will arrange the Canberra filming himself to make sure it’s top-quality for live-streaming.

They’re asking for donations to view the whole concert with various levels – $20, $40 and $60 – allowing home-based audiences access.

“In the past world,“ Withers says, “if kids wanted to come to a concert parents might have been distressed by the noise or the cost. This way you can have the best seats in your own house and see a full classical concert.”

He’s already seen ticket sales across Australia as well as in London and Paris – his friends in Paris will be sitting around at 11am French time to enjoy the music.

All the while, 11-week old Edward remains blissfully oblivious – and he’s laughing.

Guitar Festival live-stream concert, 7pm AEST, April 17, registrations at melbourneguitarfestivallivestreams.com/matt-withers

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