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Guitar professor Mark Cruz strikes a chord as festival director

Photo Courtesy of Mark Cruz
Texas State students Marina De la Cruz (Left) and Sophie Reel (Right) rehearse, Nov. 20, 2023, in the Music Building.

The Hill Country Classical Guitar Ensemble Festival, founded and curated by Mark Cruz, a guitar professor, will celebrate a wide range of guitar music in a national competition on April 5-6 at the Texas State University School of Music Recital Hall.

The festival creates a competitive performing ground for students to experience being in ensembles and to improve their performance skills. Students from middle school, high school and guitar majors from colleges and independent studios will come together to celebrate guitar and strive for excellence as they perform music pieces.

“Michael Quantz, who is a guitar professor at [University of Texas at Brownsville] had been putting on a [guitar] festival for years, and he still does,” Cruz said. “It’s in the same format as this festival. One year, Quantz couldn’t do his festival, so I did one myself. That’s how it started.”

What started as a small gathering in 2013 became a highly anticipated event for all musicians. This year is the fifth annual event due to a short pause in the festival in 2019. Starting back up in 2022, the festival has continued ever since. Cruz hopes to make the festival an annual event.

On April 5, there will a competition, vendor fair and masterclasses by Alejandro Montiel, Isaac Bustos and Mark Cruz. Closing the festival on the evening of April 6, acoustic guitar virtuoso Andy McKee will perform extended techniques and compositions followed by the awards ceremony.

Sophie Reel, a sound recording technology freshman, opens the festival alongside peer, Marina De la Cruz-Medrano, a health sciences senior. Reel and De la Cruz-Medrano have three hours of ensemble rehearsal together every week. Cruz works with the two students during these three hours to prepare for the festival.

On the evening of April 5, Cruz will perform a program of original compositions, followed by the Texas Guitar Quartet featuring Isaac Bustos, Alejandro Montiel, Joseph Palmer and Jay Kacherski. Reel is looking forward to his performance.

“Mark plays his own compositions, which I think are inspiring to listen to. He is very good at performing his compositions, and I think getting to see him perform is good for students to see as well as getting feedback from judges,” Reel said.

Reel believes the festival is a great way for students of all ages to get performance opportunities.

Although Reel enjoys playing finger-style guitar and acoustic, classical guitar is the main style she focuses on. Reel believes the guest artists who perform classical guitar at the festival can give the music-loving audience a look into the less-known genre of guitar music.

The Texas Guitar Quartet is set to perform at the Hill Country Classical Guitar Ensemble Festival. Starting in 2009, the quartet has played in a few music competitions and concerts leading up to the festival.

Joseph Palmer, a quartet member and performance engagement artist at Austin Classical Guitar, said they first played in the Hill Country Classical Guitar Ensemble Festival in 2019. Palmer said due to the quartet’s experience, they are confident their performance will go well.

Palmer believes the festival is one of the few opportunities for students to perform and compete together as an ensemble. He has had students of his own who have worked up at duet or trio with friends to compete in the Hill Country Classical Guitar Ensemble Festival.

“It’s nice that you get some of the general public to come to this festival as well as some young students, you get a nice mix of people,” Palmer said. “In my experience, classical guitar is not known as the most popular guitar. I find when people hear classical guitar being played well, they absolutely love it. The festival helps to bring awareness to the style.”

Cruz’s passion for classical guitar and his commitment to fostering a vibrant community of musicians are the driving forces behind the festival. Cruz created the festival to help students grow as individuals and as musicians, to help them learn how to share music with each other and to get them to interact when playing in an ensemble or duet.

The Hill Country Classical Guitar Ensemble Festival is open to the public and has free admission.

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