an american classic
Christopher Parkening was described by the Los Angeles Times as…”America’s reigning classical guitarist, carrying the torch of his mentor Andres Segovia.” He performs with leading orchestras including the New York Philharmonic and Royal Philharmonic, collaborates with distinguished artists such as Renee Fleming, John Williams, Josh Groban and has been featured at the White House, Live from Lincoln Center, The Tonight Show, among other venues. Parkening has premiered William Walton’s Five Bagatelles for Guitar and Orchestra, Peter Warlock’s Capriol Suite with The Academy of St. Martin in the Field and Elmer Bernstein’s Concerto for Guitar and Orchestra. His numerous discography includes Joaquin Rodrigo’s Concierto de Aranjuez and Fantasia para un gentilhombre. He Chairs the Classical Guitar Department at Pepperdine University (Malibu, California) where the Parkening International Guitar Competition is held and gives master classes worldwide. His autobiography, Grace Like a River, provides inspiring insight about his career. He is also a fly fishing and casting champion, having won the International Gold Cup Tarpon Tournament in the Florida Keys. Parkening talked with Editor Leonne Lewis about performing, teaching and the future of classical guitar.
You studied with Andres Segovia. Could you mention something Segovia told you regarding the art of classical guitar playing that stays with you as an artist and teacher?
Andres Segovia wrote me a letter after I had sent him my Parkening Plays Bach album, which included this statement about the classical guitar, that has stayed with me up to this day - “The beauty of the guitar resides in its soft and persuasive voice, and its poetry cannot be equaled by any other instrument.” I think that as a poetic instrument, the guitar should be played with great feeling. Here is an interesting story that happened in 1964 at Segovia’s first United States master class at the University of California, Berkeley, where I was the youngest of nine performers chosen to play for the Maestro. At these classes, he worked primarily on interpretation and very little on technique, which he assumed you already had. On the third day of the class I had a very unsettling experience. I made the terrible mistake of playing the famous and very difficult Chaconne of Bach (from Partita No. 2 for violin) using fingerings from my former teacher instead of Segovia’s. About one third of the way through the thirteen-minute piece, I became startled. Segovia was stomping his foot on the stage, so I stopped playing and looked up in shock to see Segovia’s hands up over his head with face turned red. He demanded, “Why have you changed the fingerings?” while his wife, sitting close by, laid her hands on his arm as if to hold him back. I melted on stage and meekly replied, “I didn’t change the fingerings, my teacher did,” to which he scowled, “Who is your teacher?” I told him and he replied, “Change it back tomorrow.” I had a lot of work to do that night, relearning all those fingerings, and it was almost like relearning the piece from scratch, measure by measure, hand shift by hand shift. When I played the re-fingered Chaconne the following day, Segovia immediately seemed to relax, smile and even complimented me.
The Christopher Parkening Guitar Method, Volumes I and II (Hal Leonard), provides valuable information and repertoire. How do you approach technique with your advanced guitar students at Pepperdine University?
My guitar method books are used in many colleges and universities across the country. Occasionally, I pick out studies from these method books for my students. I also try to assign pieces that have specific technical concerns such as the difficult run in Joaquin Rodrigo’s Fantasia para un gentilhombre or the left hand study in Fernando Sor’s Etude XII. I also recommend the Segovia scales (Diatonic Major and Minor Scales of Andres Segovia). Towards the end of the semester at Pepperdine University, we have a contest between students in which they are assigned the beginning section of Etude No. I by Heitor Villa-Lobos and Segovia’s C major scale, in two octaves with four notes per every note of the scale. We use a metronome to measure the speed of the students and it’s done with good intentions, and becomes a fun and enjoyable contest for them as well as a good learning experience.
Pianists and string players often talk about the quality of sound being produced. How do you teach a singing tone on the classical guitar and does this also depend on the type of wood used in the soundboard?
Quality of sound is something we emphasize in our guitar program at Pepperdine University. Segovia used to say, “Without a beautiful sound, the charm of the guitar disappears.” I work with students in obtaining a variety of different tonal colors, and especially how to achieve a warm, rich, beautiful sound. I go into detail about this in my guitar method books, as well. When I was at the University of Southern California there was no guitar instructor, so I studied the interpretation of J.S. Bach’s cello suites with Gregor Piatigorsky, one of the great cellists of all time. He told me, “You must sing the phrase. The voice is the perfect instrument.” This is something I pass along to each of my students. Fingerings are also a very important indicator of sound quality. The general premise is to keep a phrase on the same string, like a violinist or cellist would do. Most guitarists cross-string notes in a phrase because it’s easier to do, but then the tonal color is compromised. It is most difficult to obtain a warm, rich sound on the guitar, so for that reason I prefer a long scale cedar top guitar with Brazilian Rosewood back and sides. Generally speaking, the spruce top guitars have a thinner, brighter sound, and the cedar ones produce a darker, warmer, richer sound, which is what I prefer.
SINCE YOU WERE A STUDENT AND COLLEAGUE OF SEGOVIA, CAN YOU EXPLAIN THE TRUE MEANING OF THE SPANISH STYLE OF INTERPRETATION?
Segovia used to say that our artistic instinct is natural born. You can educate it, but you either have it or you don’t. I would watch Segovia’s master classes where he would teach certain Spanish interpretations and flair in Spanish composition. Some students were able to adopt that style, and some never did. Sometimes I suggest that my students listen to the great Spanish pianist Alicia de Larrocha, when we are studying guitar transcriptions of Isaac Albeniz and Enrique Granados, so they will hear how a great artist plays Spanish music.
YOU PLAY ORIGINAL WORKS OF BACH AND COMPOSERS OF OTHER GENRES. YOU ALSO TRANSCRIBE WORKS FOR CLASSICAL GUITAR. WHAT ARE THE CHALLENGES INVOLVED?
Put simply, the challenge involved in transcribing works written for other instruments is to make the arrangements sound as good or better than the original. There have been many transcriptions I have started then stopped because I felt they did not sound as good on the guitar as on the original instrument. This may seem subjective, but for example, I feel Segovia’s transcription of Bach’s Chaconne sounds better on guitar than on the violin – the instrument for which it was written.
THE PARKENING INTERNATIONAL GUITAR COMPETITION (ESTABLISHED IN 2006) IS AN ACKNOWLEDGEMENT OF YOUR DISTINGUISHED CAREER, BUT ALSO A SPRINGBOARD FOR TALENTED YOUNG ARTISTS. DOES THE FUTURE OF CLASSICAL GUITAR IN PERFORMANCE LOOK BRIGHTER BECAUSE OF THIS?
It has long been my vision to have a world-class guitar competition equal in stature to the great competitions for piano and violin. My goal is for the Parkening International Guitar Competition to champion and reward the long-standing traditions of musical excellence. In that regard, many of the world’s finest young guitarists, ages thirty and younger, from many countries compete for over $65,000 in cash prizes, including a $30,000 Jack Marshall Gold Medal Prize. The next competition will be held on May 29-June 2, 2018 and include the Young Guitarist Competition for ages seventeen and younger. I would also like to add that the Parkening competition is unique in that the jury includes not only a famous classical guitarist, but people from all areas of the music industry such as record producers, concert managers, conductors and concertizing instrumentalists. We also hold the final round with orchestra, which separates us from many other guitar competitions. And, Pepperdine University has been voted this country’s most beautiful campus, with its unrivaled view of the Pacific Ocean! An interesting item about the last competition is that one of the required pieces for the semi-final was Rounds, by film composer John Williams. In the Fall of 2011, I asked John if he could find time to write a piece for solo classical guitar that could be premiered at the 2012 Parkening guitar competition. Despite his being in the midst of writing two movie scores, he mentioned having a free week during Thanksgiving. To my great delight, a package arrived in the December 3 mail with the score to his new composition Rounds. I am hopeful this competition will help jump-start the careers of brilliant young musicians and am encouraged by how talented these young up and coming classical guitarists are.
THERE ARE MANY TRADITIONAL AND CONTEMPORARY GUITAR LUTHIERS, AND I READ THAT YOU PREFER TO PLAY A RAMIREZ GUITAR. CAN ONE GUITAR SATISFY THE NEEDS OF MOST REPERTOIRE?
I loved all the different tonal colors and contrasts that I heard coming from Maestro Segovia’s guitars. In the late 1960’s, I had the wonderful opportunity, through Sherry-Brener Ltd. In Chicago, to pick a guitar from about five hundred instruments – all made from Brazilian Rosewood back and sides and principally cedar tops. It is my experience that a truly great instrument may only occur once in several hundred guitars. I’ve been presented with many different guitars while on tour, and several beautiful instruments have been made for me, but those luthiers are competing against five hundred other instruments. It wasn’t really a loyalty to Segovia that kept me playing Ramirez guitars, but honestly, I’ve never found an instrument that was as musically expressive as the ones I was able to pick out. I am very honored that the so-called Bach guitar, a 1967 M. T. Jose Ramirez that I used for many recordings including Parkening Plays Bach is on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, next to Segovia’s 1912 Manuel Ramirez and his 1940 Hermann Hauser guitar. www.parkening.com