Winners in Perfect Harmony

By Julie Riggott

Photo by Vance Jacobs

Alum Bokyung “Bo” Byun is the first woman to win Guitar Foundation of America competition in 20 years.

This year, Bokyung “Bo” Byun (DMA ’20) became the first woman to win the Guitar Foundation of America (GFA) International Concert Artist Competition (ICAC) in 20 years. Another USC Thornton classical guitar graduate, Martha Masters (DMA ’00), was the winner in 2000. 

These two classical guitarists have more in common than gender and the exceptional musicianship necessary to win the most prestigious classical guitar competition in the world. They both earned their doctor of musical arts degrees at USC Thornton with Scott Tennant, a founding member of the GRAMMY-winning Los Angeles Guitar Quartet.

The parallels don’t end there either. Masters, current president of the GFA, is a faculty member at California State University, Fullerton, where Byun just accepted a faculty position.

“It was just like, oh my gosh, she’s living my life!” Byun said. 

In addition to producing GFA competition winners, USC Thornton also attracts students who have already won the award. TY Zhang and Vladimir Gorbach both joined Thornton after winning in 2017 and 2011, respectively.

Continue that Line

To be in the company of Masters and only three other female winners since the GFA ICAC’s inception in 1982 was meaningful to Byun in a deeply personal way. Byun, a native of South Korea who started playing on a custom-made guitar when she was 6, grew up listening to the CDs that Masters and Antigoni Goni (the 1995 winner of the ICAC) recorded as winners. 

Martha Masters (DMA ’00) was the last female winner of the Guitar Foundation of America (GFA) International Concert Artist Competition (ICAC) before Byun’s win

“It was very nice to see that I get to continue that line,” Byun said. “And I’m sure a little girl somewhere is going to be listening to my CD now and thinking, ‘Oh, I can be that, too.’” 

With Masters hosting the Los Angeles finals and Goni the Belgium finals, and both of them being part of the announcement of this year’s winners, Byun said, “It was like a nice girls’ club happening.”

Tennant, the chair of the USC Thornton Classical Guitar program, has traveled the world performing and teaching. In the U.S., compared to Europe, he said, there are fewer women playing classical guitar and pursuing a career in it than men, and especially white men. But he sees that trend changing. 

“I think it might have to do, of course, with interest in classical guitar when you’re young and getting the right instruction,” Tennant said. “Nowadays, we’re seeing a lot of young women doing very well, and so maybe they’ll go on to pursue a career, especially being inspired by Martha and Bo.”

Already a Winner

Raised in a small South Korean town until her family moved to China when she was 11, Byun became fascinated by the guitar from watching musicians on television. 

“It wasn’t so popular that kids were playing guitar in Korea,” she said. “Now, it’s easily accessible. I had to have a guitar made for me. I would ask my mom about it every day and drive her nuts. We still have it! My uncle paid for it, and he still talks about his investment.”

Once she started playing, she was hooked. 

“I just identify with the instrument a lot — a little timid, a little quiet, but it could be loud and sometimes quirky,” she said.

Byun said the diverse history of the instrument also piqued her interest. 

“We have a lot of South American composers and all this music that I wouldn’t have been able to play as much with other instruments. So that’s another thing that I like about the instrument: the culture of it,” she said.

Byun’s program for the GFA ICAC finals echoed the multiculturalism she describes, as it included works by Carlos Seixas, Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco, Chen Yi, Manuel Ponce and Nikita Koshkin.

Tennant watched Byun perform live in the finals in Los Angeles, where all of the North American competitors convened. (The Europeans performed in Brussels, Belgium, and final judging was done remotely). He was not surprised that she came out on top. 

“For me, there was no question that Bo stood out in every way — how grounded she was, her poise onstage, her calmness. I thought the program she presented was far more nuanced than any of the other players,” said Tennant. “But she was already a winner in my book, especially given her commitment to teaching in the local communities here.”

“I couldn’t have done it without the fantastic professors at Thornton,” Byun said. “They gave me so much input leading up to the finals. And Scott is an amazing mentor. I call him jokingly ‘my therapist’ because every lesson I go in, I’m freaking out about something, and then he calms me down. That’s really what you need, this whole support system.”

Byun, who has won several other competitions, including second prize in GFA’s 2018 competition, intends this one to be her last. 

“All the hard work that I’ve been doing feels a little more validated now,” she said. “So that’s a huge thing, that’s the biggest part. Musicians, we are a little insecure sometimes – we doubt ourselves a lot. This was a nice way to feel finally like I can do this, and it’s OK to say I’m good at this.”

With this crowning achievement, she will now focus on her concert career, ready to take off with help from her GFA competition prize, which includes a 50-concert tour of North America commencing next fall and concluding with a Carnegie Hall debut in spring 2023. Byun will also receive $10,000 and two recording contracts (one with Naxos in Canada and another in Europe).

“I’m excited to get on the road and see what it’s like to have a year full of concerts,” she said. “Just starting out, it’s not usual to have such a packed schedule.”

She’s not only excited; she feels ready. While at USC Thornton, an International Artist Fellowship allowed her to focus on her music and not her expenses as she prepared for her future as a professional musician. 

“Thornton in general and the classical guitar program especially have a really good, strong community. It’s very supportive. Some studios can be very competitive; our studio here is more like a family,” she said. 

TAGS: Classical Division, Classical Guitar, Classical Performance and Composition,

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