Australian guitarist Slava Grigoryan is no stranger to Auckland audiences. On Thursday, he returns as soloist in Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra's Latin Rhythms concert, playing Rodrigo's Concierto de Aranjuez in a programme of Falla, Bernstein and Copland.

The quietly-spoken Australian was 4 when the family emigrated from Kazakhstan and has "a few poignant memories, like my mum's father dying just before we left, but I've never been back".

Grigoryan's parents were both professional musicians and his violinist father taught him guitar.

"There was a lot of listening to recordings and watching videos, which were not easy to access in those pre-internet days," Grigoryan says. "I was given a very traditional Russian education on an instrument he couldn't play himself."


Only 14 when he first entered the Tokyo International Guitar Competition, the young Grigoryan was disqualified for playing 20 seconds under time.

"There was a translation mistake in the prospectus," Grigoryan sighs. "Two other English-speaking competitors didn't make it as well."

Frustrations were abated when, invited back the following year and he came third.

"This, as well as meeting people who knew what I was doing and wanted to help, led to my first recording," he says.

Within two years, Sony Records had released a debut album, Spirit of Spain, with three tracks featuring his father on violin.

Grigoryan will deliver one of the most iconic of all Spanish works, the Concierto de Aranjuez, which he describes as "such an important" piece for all guitarists.

"I love playing it whenever I get the chance, which is usually two or three times a year. It's such a rare combination of the Flamenco rhythmic elements that people associate with guitar and, of course, the incredible lyricism of its sad, profound second movement."

He does concede that Rodrigo's guitar writing is occasionally awkward, as the composer himself didn't play the instrument, but "that's neither here nor there when the result sounds so wonderful".

Not surprisingly, the popularity of this score has rather overshadowed the rest of Rodrigo's work. As Grigoryan puts it, "He was always trying to get back into that zone and never quite did it again."

Nevertheless, in 2004, Grigoryan and his brother Leonard released a splendid CD of three Rodrigo guitar concertos. Slava takes on Concierto de Aranjuez and Leonard Fantasia para un Gentilhombre, then they join forces for the 1966 Concierto madrigal.

"Rodrigo's daughter, Cecilia, wrote a lovely introduction for the sleeve-note," Grigoryan says. "She was so happy that we included the double concerto, her favourite of all her father's compositions."

Together the Grigoryan brothers have produced many successful albums, ranging from contemporary collections to a delightful transcription of Tchaikovsky's The Seasons. Their touring takes them from China last month to Brazil in June, with a whistlestop Australian tour from Byron Bay to Toowoomba in between.

Our conversation strays to the electric instrument of the species, recalling Grigoryan's deft participation on electric guitar in Jack Body's Carmen Dances in Auckland back in 2002.

"I loved playing it in high school, in lots of different bands," he says. "But nowadays I don't get the chance much."

Those were the days, in their way, when Jimi Hendrix had equal guitar hero status to Andres Segovia and John Williams.

"Hendrix was huge for me," Grigoryan says. "He seemed to play beyond the limits of what the guitar could do, with vocals shining through. It's a sound that no one has been able to recreate since."

What: Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra, Latin Rhythms
Where and when: Auckland Town Hall, Thursday at 8pm.