Newfoundlander Steve Cowan took home the Grand Award at the recent National Music Festival in Fort McMurray, Alta.
Cowan said it’s the first time a Newfoundlander has won top honours. And he said it’s rare for a guitarist to win, as classical guitar is a more intimate instrument and it’s harder to fill a big concert hall with the performance.
The National Music Festival is co-ordinated by the Federation of Canadian Music Festivals, a not-for-profit organization comprised of nearly 230 local and provincial music festivals around the country, many of them known as Kiwanis music festivals.
“I absolutely almost fainted,” said Cowan, 24, who did not take up the classical guitar until he was 18.
“It was a really, really great surprise.”
Cowan performed “Sonata Opus 47,” which he described as an aggressive showpiece with a “crazy, big finale.” He said the selection of that piece was key to his grand win.
He took home plaques for his category and the overall win, in which he competed against winners in voice, piano, brass, woodwinds, chamber, string and percussion. He also won $1,500 for the guitar prize and $5,000 for the Grand Award.
The piece is by Latin American composer Alberto Ginastera and uses every sound a guitar can make, Cowan said.
Cowan said he’s a converted rock musician who fell in love with the classical guitar when he took it up for university music studies.
In order to qualify for the national competition, Cowan won the provincial Kiwanis festival here.
He did his undergraduate degree in music at Memorial University and a masters in New York City. He’s currently living in Montreal and is considering eventual PhD studies so he can teach at the university level, considered the steadiest of jobs for a classical guitarist.
But he also wants to travel and perform, collaborate with others and compose.
Cowan has always been active in music and plays electric guitar, but said rock is more of a hobby these days.
“Maybe someday I will be playing classical guitar in clubs instead of stuffy concert halls. Maybe someday I will be playing rock music in a concert hall or teaching both and uniting the two worlds. That’s my goal for the next two years to figure out exactly what I specifically want to do,” he said.
He’s played drums in an on-and-off St. John’s band, Surgeon, and with friends in Montreal. Cowan said he isn’t sure where he got his talent.
He’s the only one among a large group of cousins that has a degree in anything remotely related to the arts, Cowan said.
He said his dad is an avid music collector, but doesn’t play an instrument and his mother is a decent recreational piano player.
Cowan credits his prowess to practising hard.
“It’s always been an obsession,” he said.