Léo Brouwer once wrote in a letter to Robert J Vidal:
"What a colossal monument you have built to the glory of the guitar through your fiery determination and to what an extent our world now takes pride in itself because of your 'concours'. How many young people's faces light up in the remotest parts of the world when they dream of your competition. For, in the end, it takes a bit of a Don Quixote or a complete madman, like you, to get up every morning ready to begin your battle afresh mounted on your six-stringed Rocinante. But you are not alone. There is a host of like-minded lunatics out there who understand you and thank you again and again!"
When Régine Claire-Boissard, President of the ODECA Association (Organisation pour le Développement Européen des Cultures et des Arts) encouraged me to make my dream come true and create a competition which would perpetuate Robert J Vidal's name, the initiative was eagerly greeted by the greatest of our present-day guitarists. Our enthusiasm and perseverance have resulted in the "Concours International de la Guitare Robert J Vidal".
If the guitar is known to a wide public today it is thanks to Robert's efforts and we must pay him due homage in order that the younger generation may come to understand what he achieved.
Guitarist and Friend of Robert J Vidal
Robert J Vidal
In the early days of 2002, the world of the guitar lost one of its most familiar and respected voices. On 11th January, after a long and courageous battle against cancer, Robert Vidal passed away at Montfort in his beloved Chalosse, in the South West of France.
Robert was born in May 1925 in Algiers. He was almost 29, when, on 11th March 1954, French Radio broadcast the first of what were to become the universally acclaimed series dedicated to the guitar, its composers and its finest artists – those who were established as well as those who deserved to be better known. The broadcasts were not restricted to just one facet of the guitar – but were to cover all forms: classical, flamenco and jazz.
That first series ‘Des Notes sur la Guitare’ was soon followed, in 1956, by ‘Sortilèges (Spells) du Flamenco’. The year before, with RCA, he had begun working on the ground-breaking record collection ‘Anthology of the Guitar’. In 1958 he founded the now legendary ‘Concours International de la Guitare de la Radio Nationale’. (RTF, ORTF and Radio France), which he directed for 35 years. By 1959 he was presenting the television programme ‘Renaissance of the Guitar’ (this series would end six years later with a special programme produced in Santiago de Compostela with Andrés Segovia) and one radio programme after another: ‘The Guitar and its Virtuosi’, ‘Introduction to the Guitar’, ‘Guitar Magazine’, The Guitar in all its Forms’, and many others. In 1964 Decca commissioned him to put all of Segovia’s recordings in thematic order. In 1977 he produced, with Andrés Segovia, a series of 16 conversations in Spanish for Radio Nacional de España and in French for Radio France. In 1979 the Festival Mondial de la Guitar in Martinique…….
And so it continued throughout his life. Nowhere is this dedication to the art and pedagogy of the guitar better exemplified than in the ‘International Guitar Weeks’ in the Théâtre de la Ville de Paris, the travelling Guitar Festivals or in the ‘International Guitar Encounters’ held annually in southern French cities such as Arles, Castres and Tarbes where celebrity concerts were mixed with master-classes in classical guitar, flamenco and jazz.
There can be no couple in the world who have done more for guitar lovers, guitarists young and not so young, composers for the instrument – even that most neglected group, the guitar makers, than Robert and his wife Yvette. No one has done more to promote a sense of companionship amongst those who live and work in the community of the guitar. And for the multitudes who listened to the hundreds of broadcasts – who were not themselves practitioners or even musicians but who were united in their love of the instrument – his softly persuasive voice graced their evenings over 48 years with the music and the musicians they loved. Andrés Segovia said it more eloquently than any of us when he described Robert, his friend and confidant over many decades, as ‘Un Phare dans le Monde de la Guitare’ – ‘A Beacon in the World of the Guitar’.
Robert remained close to the greatest interpreters and composers – Andrés Segovia, Joaquin Rodrigo, Emilio Pujol and their families. The Radio France Concours, from which he retired in 1993, annually brought to light young talents who were themselves to become famous (Alberto Ponce, Oscar Ghiglia, Turibio Santos, Barbara Polisek and Konrad Ragossnig to name but a few), as did the charmed circles of the Concours and the Festivals. This included Segovia himself, Alirio Diaz, and others who still influence the sound of the guitar in the world – Walter Abt, Roberto Aussel, Leo Brouwer, Costas Cotsiolis, Delia Estrada, Paco de Lucia, Paco Peña, Alvaro Pierri, Manolo Sanlucar, Ichiro Suzuki, and John Williams – not to mention the ‘distinguished working musicians’ of the jury itself! … In fact I believe Antonio Lauro’s first visit to Europe was to the Festival In Castres.
I remember, too, the Festival in Tarbes in July 1987 which numbered amongst the artists Roberto Aussel and the ‘flamencos’ Paco de Lucia, his group and Manolo Franco.
I was stopped by the police speeding in the wrong direction down a one-way street with Manolo in the car. We were late for the concert he was giving but saved by the fact that his face was on vivid display in the posters that lined the streets ….That year there was also an unreal competition where the musicians were hidden from view behind screens. For once they didn’t matter: we were there to award prizes to that brotherhood of master-craftsmen without whom we would all be silent: the guitar makers.
No-one, Robert most of all, saw anything ahead but the prospect of more writing and plans for widening the confraternity of the guitar. There seemed to be time enough. John came to Montfort to give a personal concert-tribute to mark Robert’s retirement in 1997 and we spent a few unforgettable days amongst the gentle hills of Chalosse talking about creating a centre for all those interested in the guitar.
Nor was his passion restricted to the classical and flamenco worlds. He counted Joe Pass, Barney Kessel, Baden Powell and many of the other great names amongst his friends…Muddy Waters, BB King…..He must have been one of the last to talk with Django Reinhardt just before his premature death in 1953. They had met a few nights before at the rue St Benoît/ St Germain des Près Métro Station.
He was a tireless traveller who relished the contact with young people that his passionate commitment to the guitar constantly brought. The cluster of torn-but-never-discarded luggage tags on his shoulder bag said everything: a globetrotter who never tired of the companionship of good musicians, whose presence and views were sought in every ‘concours’ worth its name, and who, himself, could draw on a rich and varied experience of life. He had even worked, in his youth, as an orderly in a hospital in London – a city he loved and where in 1989 and 2001 he gave lectures on the guitar for the Instituto Cervantes of the Spanish Government and for the London Guitar Festival organised by the Venezuelan Embassy.
The Spanish Government trusted his judgement to such a degree that from 1959 he was allowed unrestricted access to artists, recordings and documents that constituted, at the time, a unique anthology of flamenco. His efforts were recognised by the award of the title and privileges of Caballero de la Orden del Mérito Civil by the King of Spain.
Robert will be missed for many reasons – not least because like the gypsies in Flamenco – he was the repository, guardian and vector of much of what is the spirit of the art. The embodiment of ‘el duende’ even, for in addition to the quality and intransigence of his artistic judgement he was possessed of a devilishly irreverent sense of humour….
So great and enduring is his influence that I find it difficult, six years after his death, to write about him in the past tense.
Ancien Membre du Jury du Concours International de Radio France,
Membre du Jury du Concours International de Guitare Classique de Barbezieux.
‘Escan-Set’, Laurède, Landes, France