A Tale of Two Festivals–I

Published by Legacy of Matanya Ophee on

The GFA Festival in Charleston SC.

By Matanya Ophee

Duo FirenzeManuel BarruecoEduardo FernándezVirginia LuqueAdam del MonteChristopher Parkening


The discussion around the table at the Marco Polo restaurant in Cuernavaca was heated and live. This was just after a magnificent concert by one of the Guitar’s Leading Superstars (GLS for short) where the performer (henceforth identified as GLS-1) got on a lengthy philosophical debate with the performer who did the gig the night before (henceforth identified as GLS-2). These post-concert dinner parties at the Marco Polo have become a tradition. This was the third time I was invited to Cuernavaca and I have had the occasion to slurp spaghetti and munch on pizzas while imbibing large quantities of tequila with many of our colleagues, Mexicans, Norte-Americanos, and Europeans, with an occasional spattering of Argentinians and Paraguayans and other South- and Central-Americans. 

As in many other such encounters in guitar festivals around the world, the talk is usually the latest in guitar gossip, raunchy jokes and much idle chatter. This time though, the talk was about criticism. GLS-1 was saying that it is possible to make an objective assessment of someone’s playing (I am paraphrasing, of course) because there are natural laws in our Western musical tradition that govern what is good and what is bad. For example, he argued, a crescendo that is smooth and regular and ascends from soft to loud without any vacillations, is a good thing. Par contre, a crescendo that only gets to its summit after a wild ride through all shades of dynamics is not a good thing. That’s the law. GLS-2’s opinion (and I am paraphrasing again) was that the impression of what the crescendo was actually like is a combination of what the performer put out, and what the listener actually perceived. In other words, there cannot be any objective assessment of someone’s playing, because the listener cannot divorce himself from his own temperament and disposition, and particularly from the mood of the moment. In short, the discussion ended up with GLS-1 adamantly claiming that absolute objectivity is possible, while GLS-2 maintained that absolute subjectivity rules. A couple more tequilas helped us bring up some really raunchy jokes and thus change the subject.

I used to review concerts from 1981 to 1992. My reviews were published in many guitar magazines all over the world. Naturally, some of my opinions have earned me a congregation of enemies any professional reviewer would be proud of. It also made me an equal number of close personal friends. I took this manifestation of hate and love an occupational hazard a reviewer must accept as part of the job. But then something strange happened. In one review I published in Soundboard in 1991, I wrote an account of a concert of which I was very impressed. I waxed rhapsodic on the way this guy generated such a wave of emotional energy, that I, and the rest of the audience, were overwhelmed with a unique sense of beauty and bliss (I am paraphrasing again. Afraid to go look up what I did actually write then). Sometimes after the review was published, I received from the concert organizers a cassette tape recording of the very same concert. Listening to it, but in an environment where the presence of the performer was only as faint memory, I couldn’t believe my ears. This was bad. Really bad. Technically, musically, aesthetically bad.

I could not de-publish the review. It was already part of the printed record. I could not even write an angry Letter-To-The-Editor denouncing my own review. I decided then and there that I get too emotionally involved with a musical performance to be of any use as an impartial and objective observer. I stopped writing concert reviews.

Listening to GLS-1 and GLS-2 debating objectivity and subjectivity in critical reviews, I wanted very much to support GLS-1’s idea that something corrupt and bad, is corrupt and bad even if no one is listening. The tree in the forest does make a sound when it falls. The argument made a lot of sense and I wanted to embrace it. But then I remembered the event I described above, and recalled that at least on this one occasion, I was sidetracked by my own emotional attachment to the particular repertoire played then, and could not hear how it was actually done. In other words, subjective judgements may take the upper hand and prevent an objective impression. Yet, one cannot dismiss the concept that some things are bad universally. You think I am sitting on a fence here?

Perhaps. But coming back from these two events, the annual GFA festival in Charleston, SC, and the 6th annual Cuernavaca festival, I think I can manage enough impartial objectivity with which to voice my purely subjective ruminations on what took place. Let’s see.

I hope it is clear by now that I do not pretend for a second to present an impartial and objective review. Some things make me happy, and others just rub me the wrong way. This review will reflect my own personal bias. Take it or leave it.

The structure of the GFA Festival this year was basically the same as it has been traditionally. Morning lectures, noontime and mid-afternoon concerts by second-echelon (see below) performers, including the traditional concert by last year’s competition winner, and evening concerts by top flight performers, the guitar’s leading superstars. In the background, there was the vendor’s fair where various guitar related businesses, publishers, instrument makers, string manufacturers and others were doing business, and the place to hang out if that was what one felt like doing. As a participating vendor, I found the logistical set up was indeed very well organized and Clelia Reardon was one person you could count on for solving any problem. Good job, Clelia.

Unfortunately, the majority of events took place in other physical locations, not in the main building where the vendors’ fair was situated. So in spite of the fact that the attendance was the highest in a GFA festival in many years, the actual turnover for most vendors was disappointing. Another grating presence was the fact that most important events were not staged in acoustically functional concert halls. When necessary, sound systems were not available, and present when all they did was to add to the acoustic confusion.

As a vendor, I was occupied at my table and was not able to attend many concerts and lectures which took place during the fair’s business hours. Thus I missed some important lectures where my presence was needed, Erik Stenstadvold’s lectur on Antoine de Lhoyer, for example, and also some lectures and concerts where my absence was noted with relief. ’Nuff said. I did not miss Christopher Teves’ lecture-recital of Russian guitar music. But since it was mainly based on material I published and in which I have a clear axe to grind, perhaps I should not say much beyond the obvious fact that Christopher Teves is a very talented guitarist. He should be encouraged in his search for the novel and unusual, for his rejection of the mundane. I also did not miss James Buckland’s lecture on the terz-guitar, a subject I have written about in the past. That lecture was obviously a condensed abstract of the man’s PH.D. dissertation. I should read that document before commenting further.

Duo Firenze

I did not miss the Duo Firenze’s (Robert Trent, 19th century guitar, and Pamela Swenson on a replica of a Viennese fortepiano) mid-day concert on Monday, October 25th. I had to be there, since they were the first performers to play from my edition of the piano and guitar version of the First Concerto op. 48 by Ernest Shand.[1]The premier of the guitar and string quartet version of the same work was given by Kazuhito Yamashita and members of the Chinese National Orchestra in Taipei, Taiwan, the week before, on October 17th. The Duo Firenze is a competent pair of instrumentalists who take their business and their repertoire seriously. Considering the fact that they got the music for the Shand Concerto only three weeks before the premier, the performance was a credible account of this music. Of course, as one who has a clear axe to grind in this piece, I may not be the best judge. But I did enjoy the concert as a whole. They played, besides the Shand, also the Grande Sonate Brilliante op. 102 by Anton Diabelli, the second Nocturne op. 44 by Francesco Molino and two duos based on Rossini’s operas, op. 233 by Ferdinando Carulli.

Manuel Barrueco

The evening concert that day was given by Manuel Barrueco, unquestionably, one of the most important leading guitar superstars active today. As a listener, I was in no condition to do justice to Barrueco. I drove the day before all the way from Columbus OH to Charleston, and spent most of the day organizing my vendor’s push-cart and hawking my wares. Also, I knew that I will be hearing Barrueco, hopefully with the same program, in about a week’s time in Curenavaca. I left the concert after the first piece and went to bed.

Eduardo Fernández

Next evening, Tuesday the 26th, we heard the Uruguayan guitarist Eduardo Fernández. We last heard Fernández at a GFA event in Buffalo. It was then, as it was now once again, an unforgettable performance by an incredibly emotional and powerful player. On the program, the Rossiniana No. 1 Op. 119 by Giuliani, delivered with panache and sleight-of-hand virtuosity, though one might have wished for a bit more bel canto and operatic melodrama. The Sechs Lieder by Schubert arranged by J.K. Mertz,[2]Actually, all Mertz did here was to adapt for the guitar several arrangements of Schubert lieder made by Franz Liszt, but that is another story. were delivered with sensitivity and a clear understanding of the vocal source for these mini-preludes. The Nocturnal Op. 70 by Benjamin Britten and a Suite Colombiana No. 2 by Gentil Montaña filled the second half. A most satisfying concert for this grumpy old man. I loved it, particularly so, when it became clear in later evenings, that it was downhill from then on, all the way to the pits.

Virginia Luque

Before I comment on the lady’s performance as a player, I need to say something on her performance as a purveyor of witless equivocation. A conference of guitarists such as the GFA festival is not exactly on the level of the membership of a ladies’ garden club or even that of a provincial guitar society. We know who is who and we do not take lightly to being taken for fools. The program notes of the previous two artists did what such program notes are supposed to do, i.e., inform the public about the artist’s accomplishments. Facts, not propaganda. Ms. Luque’s program notes started with this monumental pronouncement: 

Virginia Luque is rightfully being hailed as the “next great guitarist.” 

Is that so? We are not told who is doing that rightful hailing, and if she is indeed the “next greatest guitarist” we are not told who is the present greatest guitarist. But in the very next sentence, it says that 

The great Spanish guitarist, Andrés Segovia, recognizing Ms. Luque’s immense talents, asked her to study privately with him waiving all fees.

That is really wonderful news which must have saved the young woman a lot of money. But now we know who the last “great” was: Andrés Segovia. In other words, this text implies that between the death of Segovia in 1987 until today, no guitarist could have been considered as “great” and only the appearance of Ms. Luque will finally reward the guitar, sometimes in the future no doubt, with another crown of greatness. Excuse me while I go and upchuck quietly in the gutter. What follows is a list of some minor accomplishments in her native Spain and in New York, and then it says this:

Further recognition has come her way from the great American guitarist Christopher Parkening who, upon seeing [my Italics!] her play, invited her to do a special guest recital at the Christopher Parkening International Masterclass at Montana State University, Bozeman, Montana in the summer of 1996.

This is actually an insult to Mr. Parkening which insinuates that he was moved by the visual aspect of Ms. Luque’s performance, and not by the sound she made. Interesting. In response to this very same quotation which I posted on the rec.music.classical.guitar newsgroup on November 5th, I received a private e-mail message from Sharon Devol, secretary to Christopher Parkening, which said that this wasn’t true. At his annual master class, Ms. Devol added, all performing students and auditors vote, and the 6 students receiving the most votes give the closing recital. Mr. Parkening does not vote . . . Further, Ms. Devol doubted if CP would even barely remember Virginia Luque. At least he has never mentioned her name in the 15+ years Ms. Devol worked for him. Is this a case of someone lying, or is it a case of over-imaginative public relations copy-writing gone wild?

After some more listings of concerts here and there, the blurb ends up by saying that:

Virginia Luque plays classical and flamenco music in a Spanish romantic style rarely heard today, combining extraordinary technical virtuosity with hauntingly beautiful sound and musicianship.

After having heard the beginning of Ms. Luque’s Charleston recital, I have to agree with the first part of the statement. This kind of Españolada, Spanish fluff, is rarely heard today. There are some extraordinary artists on the Spanish classical guitar scene these days. Miguel Angel Girollet, Margarita Escarpa, Ignacio Rodes, José María Gallardo del Rey, María Esther Guzmán, Gerardo Arriaga, to mention a few. These are, each in his/her own way, a superb musician with a clear understanding of what professional music making today is all about. The kind of performances we used to expect in the past from the likes of the Coochi-Coochi girl aka Charo, is no longer heard these days, even when the repertoire changes from Xavier Cugat’s lollipops to Jorge Morel’s.

As for the second part of the sentence: I also have to agree. In part at least. The extraordinary technical virtuosity is there. The hauntingly beautiful sound is there. But where did she leave her musicianship? At Segovia’s death-bed?

I missed the very first selection, the Danza Brasileira and the Preludio y Giga by Jorge Morel. Dinner at a wonderful fishery on Bay street took a little longer to get through. So I did not actually witness the spectacle of the artist coming on stage minus her guitar, sitting down regally, and then an assistant comes on stage and presents the instrument to her with a deep bow. I have heard a lot of pomposity on stage and witnessed some pretty grotesque affectations in my time. But if this is true, and the people who told me about that are some of the most reliable eye-witnesses I know, then I am really at a loss for words. 

Next on the program were three tangos by Astor Piazzola: Verano Porteño, Milonga and La Muerte del Angel. Let me put this in a nut shell: I am a beginning student of Argentinian tango dance. But if I wanted to do even the basic tango salida followed by a simple cruzado or ocho, to Ms. Luque’s tango music, I would have broken both my legs in the first two measures. And if you doubt that Piazzola’s tangos are dance music, strictly controlled by the compás of the Argentinian tango, go see the Carlos Saura movie Tango, where, among others, Piazzola’s music serves as the backdrop for some really complicated tango moves. I can tell now exactly if a guitarist can dance the tango by the way he or she plays Piazzola. Virginia Luque, I am convinced, cannot dance the tango, has no idea what Argentinian tango is all about. She certainly cannot play this music the way it was conceived.

At this point, there was a short intermission in which Jeff Cogan, the competition director, came on stage to announce the names of the finalists. When he was done, it was announced that the guitarist had developed an acute pain in her side and the concert would be continued a bit later. After about 15 minutes of this, having Angel Romero’s concert in the La Jolla event two years ago as the background, I began to develop severe pains in another part of my anatomy, the one I usually sit on. So together with several other like-minded lovers of good music, we left Ms. Luque to her own devices and repaired to the upper floor of the Club Havana, where a couple of shots of Lagavulin single malt whisky and a good cigar did marvels to alleviate the pain. The conversation there had much to do with the sort of Artistic Direction the current event was showing us. How come a pedestrian presentation by a new comer who thinks that her promotional bullshit and eccentric stage mannerisms are going to win any converts among guitarists was given top billing, while much more deserving artists like Nikita Koshkin, Elena Papandreou and Stanley Yates were scheduled in a second-echelon midday slot?

Adam del Monte

I like that boy. Particularly because he and I come from the same neck of the wood, we speak the same native language and we both had the same teacher at one point: the venerable Menache Baquiche. I heard him for the first time two years ago in the La Jolla event, sharing the stage with Roland Dyens. Amazing technique, fiery flamenco and a sensitive musicality apparent in his own compositions. Occupying the evening spot for Thursday the 28th, was certainly a step up for Adam. For me, it was a gross disappointment. He began by playing a partita by that gitano folk hero Juan Sebastiano Baja. I am sorry, but amazing speed a la Paco de Lucia and the kind of phrasing that will do marvels in a juerga, is simply blasphemous when applied to the music of Bach. Attaching to this an improvisatory Dyens piece, a Bellinati Braziliada and an Albeniz transcription, could be looked over as simply adolescent programming. But sticking in the middle of that salad his own Lament for Six Million, was nothing short of abominable bad taste. The Lament is a good piece, well written. I told Adam in La Jolla that I would like very much to publish it for him, provided he changed the title. Using such a politically charged appellation, immediately limits the piece’s suitability to performances in funerals, Izkor (remembrance) services in synagogues, Holocaust memorial services, Zionist pep rallies and United Jewish Appeal fund raisers. Some people, particularly those who do not know much about the Holocaust, get fidgety when they hear a title like that. A Lament for a Dead Mouse, or a Pavane for a Indisposed Rat, or anything else, would neutralize the political connotations of the title and make the piece much more accessible as music. It appears that Adam decided against this and the piece is going to be published, with that title, by another publisher. That’s OK. But programming it flanked on one side by a Dyens and on the other side by a Bellinati, is an insult to all those, myself among them, who lost family members in the Holocaust. 

The second half of the program was devoted to Adam’s own flamenco creations. I had no doubt that he would pull that off successfully, even without my presence. I left in the intermission for the Havana Club. Two Lagavulins, and one smuggled Cohiba someone gave me as a present provided a delightful ending for a sorry evening.

Christopher Parkening

I first heard this guitarist in Avery Fisher Hall in New York in 1974 (or was it 1973, or 1972?). By that time, I have heard Andrés Segovia, Richard Pick, Rey de la Torre, Alirio Diaz, John Williams, Narciso Yepes, Ziegfried Behrend, Rodrigo Riera, Gustavo Lopez, Etta Zaccharia, Carlos Barbosa-Lima, Jorge Morel, Jesus Silva, the Abreu Brothers, Oscar Ghiglia, Charley Byrd, Olga Coelho, Anatole Regnier, Brigitte Zaczek and Julian Bream. I was a pretty competent player myself in those days. I knew what guitar music was supposed to sound like. I recall leaving this concert with a distinct feeling of malaise, but for the life of me I couldn’t tell you now what was wrong back then. Over the years, I have developed a marked antipathy towards everything connected to this performer’s name. Hearing him over the radio once in an interview in which he mentioned Segovia’s name three times in every sentence, with not a little measure of born-again Christian evangelism thrown in, I realized that my concept of what music is and what the guitar stands for, or ought to stand for, is far out of phase with his. I deliberately avoided his concert at the 1982 GFA festival in Denver, devoted to that mysterious entity, the Liturgical Guitar. (Did you ever hear of Liturgical Organ, or a Liturgical Piano?) After having been subjected to some pretty Jimmy-Swaggartisms from brother Rick Foster, I decided to boycott Parkening. I was told that we shall have more of the same. 

Don’t misunderstand me. I am a very tolerant person. Other people’s religion is none of my business. But I failed to see what born-again Christian propaganda has to do with the classical guitar, and I resented that the GFA, an organization of which I am a member, was dragged into the support of one religious doctrine, in the name of all its non-Christian members, the Jews, the Moslems, the Shinto, the Buddhists and the pagans. Seeing Parkening on the roster in Charleston, and doing the closing evening concert to boot, I had to see if this religious thing is being drawn once again into our midst, and if it was, I was ready to interrupt the proceedings with a loud protest, right in the middle of the concert. Of course, I was also interested in finding out if my 26-year old bad impression of the man as a musician had any basis in reality or was just a nasty dream I remembered falsely. I already walked out of four evening concerts in Charleston, so I was determined to sit through the entire evening, no matter what. But the witless equivocation of the program’s propaganda hit me once again between the eyes. It started with this quote, presumably uttered someplace by Andrés Segovia:

“Christopher Parkening is a great artist – he is one of the most brilliant guitarists in the world.”

I am not sure what is the relevance of a quote like that to a performance by an artist 12 years after the death of the man who pronounced it. Assuming it was actually said, and assuming that indeed it reflected Segovia’s true feelings about his protégé at the time it was said, using it today as an endorsement is like asking Segovia to restate his good words right from inside the grave, or from Heavens Above. Excuse me while I go swing a dead chicken over my head in a Kaparoth(Jewish Yom-Kippur penance ritual) for having thought such evil thoughts. But then we go into the meat and potatoes of the PR man’s promotional prose:

CHRISTOPHER PARKENING ranks as one of the world’s preeminent virtuosos of the classical guitar and is the recognized her [sic!] to the Segovia tradition.

Right there, in this seemingly innocent proclamation, we get the full flavor of the same procedure used by whoever wrote the program notes for Virginia Luque’s concert a couple of days before. Must have been the same writer! Whoever he or she was, nothing is said of who did this ranking, when the ranking was done, who else was being ranked at the same time and how they fared. Surely, if Parkening is only “one of the world’s preeminent virtuosos of the classical guitar” there couldn’t be too many of those occupying the same rank, could it? So who, in the eyes of the author of this mellifluous grandiloquence, is also a preeminent virtuoso of the classical guitar?

As for being recognized as heir to Segovia, I have the same set of questions. Is there a document anywhere within reach by the general public where it can be verified that Andrés Segovia, a Spanish life peer, a fanatic adherent of the most acerbic variety of extremist Spanish nationalism, and one of the greatest sinners the world had ever known, if we are to believe the things he said about himself in the Segovia-Ponce Letters, had legally transferred ownership of his throne on top of the trash heap of guitar history to a self-righteous jodío yanqui? How else this honorific would be passed down? It is not hereditary. And then, I think there are others who have a much stronger claim to Segovia’s artistic nachlass than Parkening. People like Eliot Fisk, Oscar Ghiglia, Alirio Diaz, Michael Lorimer, to mention a few names. But let’s continue with examining this beguiling testimonial.

His concerts and recordings span a period of over two decades and have received the highest most consistent worldwide acclaim.

If in fact it was consistent worldwide, the music critic of the Columbus Dispatch, one Barbara Zuck, had never heard of it. When Parkening played here some 5-6 years ago, she had given his performance the kind of drabbing that would make my own discussion of his performance in Charleston like a pleasant walk in the park. There must have been other like it. Some more brave declarations:

His rare combination of dramatic virtuosity and eloquent musicianship has captivated audiences from New York, Boston, Washington and Chicago to London, Venice, Paris and Tokyo.

That is one statement I fully agree with. His virtuosity is indeed dramatic by its very absence, and his musicianship is so eloquent by its grating discord and triteness, that it is indeed a rare combination, seldom seen or heard among those who present themselves before the public as professional musicians.

Mr. Parkening performs over 60 concerts annually, and has appeared at the White House at the request of the President of the United States.

Ernesto Bitteti once told me that he plays 150 concerts every year. Can the number of concerts an artist plays annualy serve as a reliable indication of his artistic worth, or an indication of a healthy stamina and effective management? Besides, which President was that? Eisenhower?

Christopher Parkening has twice been nominated for the prestigious Grammy Award and is one of the most recorded guitarists in the world.

First claim is probably a true statement. I don’t follow Grammy Award nominations. But I do wonder how many recordings would make him qualified for the characterization as “one of the most recorded guitarists in the world?” The 1990 Orphée Data-base of Guitar Records lists 7 records by Christopher Parkening. In 1991, one more was added. Let’s assume now, for argument’s sake, that the listing is 100% wrong. The actual number of recordings would then be 16. As a matter of fact, Parkening’s own web site lists a total of 14 CDs. That’s it. How does that compare with the more than 50 recordings by Julian Bream, and with the more than 100 recordings by Kazuhito Yamashita? The man is not even close!

But now it is time to go hear the music. Oops, not yet. We are seated in that big church and the place is packed. Behind the altar, there is a large movie screen and a video projector is mounted in the aisle in front of the stage. Aha, this concert, advertised as A Celebration of Andrés Segovia, will begin with a celebratory movie about Segovia. All right, let’s see what comes up.

What did come up was a clever doctoring of available archival film strips about Segovia, which showed that indeed Segovia did say what the program notes said he said, right down to the implication that he was actually saying it right now, directly from Heavens Above. The film also contained some allegations about what had transpired in the Santiago de Compostella competition, where, so it was alleged, Parkening, who came in as a competitor, ended up as one of the judges. I have no direct knowledge of this affair, but it does sound awfully strange when by some magic a competitor becomes a judge. And then, there were some people in the audience who were present in Santiago de Compostella so many years ago, and whose recollection of the events was, so they told me, entirely different than the way these same events were portrayed in the film. The truth of this matter is yet to be established, but in the meantime, I am not going to murder a perfectly good chicken to do a Kaparoth penance for thinking that somehow, this film was a not a celebration of Segovia at all, but rather a self-serving crass propaganda in celebration of Christopher Parkening. If only Segovia could have seen this . . .

There are two areas which I need to discuss regarding the actual performance. It might be argued that any unsatisfactory musical performance may have been the result of an “off night,” that the man was trying to do the show in spite of some physical difficulties, etc. But there is no room for questions about an “off night” when the very program, one with which Parkening has been touring I am told, is constructed in what appears to be a total lack of understanding what the Segovia repertoire was all about, if the intent was to present Segovia’s own repertoire in celebration of his memory. The program was a hackneyed grouping of bits and pieces, slapped together with no musical logic other than a distant resemblance to Segovia’s rent-a-program idiosyncrasies of the 1930s. 

The program began with a pairing of the Bach Little Prelude in D, with a Gavotte in E from the Third Lute Suite—both of which are decidedly third year student material. I do not recall Segovia ever pairing them like that. The pieces do not belong together and there is no logic in the harmonic shift between them. To program such a pairing for an audience of guitarists, among which there were many teachers, scholars, students, amateurs and even professional performers, is an indication of a quintessence of mediocrity. It is also a grave insult to our collective musical intelligence. We deserve better than that.

The performance itself was so sloppy, so banal, so bad that I have no more words to express my anger that such a charade was perpetrated on the GFA. You want specifics? awful scrappy sound, no idea of phrasing, adding bass notes in the Little prelude not as harmonic alterations but simply hitting the wrong string, flat dynamics, and stupid theatrical ending with the right hand flying up in the air in a false dramatic exclamation.

Thoughts through my mind while this is going on: this concert took place right after the semi-finals, when some 12 bright young men, people like Alieksy Vianna, Randal Avers and others, who could surely play circles around Christopher Parkening both technically and musically, were told that they were not good enough to go to the finals, and this was presented to them as a role model! I’ll go one further, one of the finest guitarists active today, a young Polish guitarist named Marcin Dylla, didn’t even make it into the semi-finals. I was in the jury in Tychy which awarded him the first prize in 1996. I heard him several times in concert since. As far as I am concerned, this guy is a live wire, an exciting player with so much emotional energy, you got goose bumps even before he started playing. I did. He may have had a bad case of nerves this time, an “off night.” But I think the problem was that he was the last competitor the jury heard. I am sure they simply could not hear anything by this time, and a good man who had come all the way from Poland for this, was not given a fair chance. Fortunately, he left early and did not stay for the finals, and thus could not hear this adulteration of the very concept of music making that he dedicated his life to.

Next on the printed program: Galliard and Allemande by John Dowland, transcribed by Segovia. The first piece performed was some nondescript piece which no one who knows his Dowland could identify. The second, billed as an Allemande, was actually a truncated version of the King of Denmark Galliard which sounded strangely similar to Jack Duarte’s transcription. As for the general playing of these two aberrations that John Dowland would have never recognized as his own, see above. Ditto.

Next: Three pieces by Gaspar Sanz, without a specification of who made the transcription. I had a tough time to tell which pieces they were, and if not the listing in the printed program, I suspect I would not have known. I know my Sanz inside out. I have been studying Sanz for many years now. I have all the editions of this music starting from Pujol’s, Rodrigo de Zayas’ and now the latest and the best, the new one by Robert Strizich published by Doberman-Yppan. Whoever made these transcriptions played by Parkening was more interested in emulating Rodrigo’s elaborations of the pieces for the Fantasia Para un Gentilhombre, then in Sanz’ originals. Playing level: see above. Ditto.

Next: a Prelude by L.S. Weiss, which Parkening explained is really not by Weiss but by Ponce. That’s the one in E Major recorded by Segovia with Rafael Puyana on harpsichord. I know many who do the guitar part as a solo, and I did so myself in my playing days, years before it was published by Yolotl Publications. It works quite well as a solo, if one can keep up the driving tempo. Parkening could not and what we got was a pathetic waddle, rambling on at about half speed with one engine sputtering and the other one running out of steam.

Next: a pairing of the oddest selection of Sor’s: Etude No. 3 (Op. 6 No. 2) and the Mozart Variations Op 9. Now there are many teachers who will agree with me that Op. 6 No. 2 is decidedly second year material. Nothing wrong with that in principle, if the guy could keep a singing line in the treble, with some modicum of correct phrasing in this rather simplistic 8 bar AABB structure. Nothing of the sort came out. Playing the piece at all in concert, would have made sense if it was presented, as Sor intended it to be, as part of the complete cycle. But taking this piece which ends in A Major cadence and continuing it with the theme of Mozart’sDas Klinget So Herrlich which starts with the dominant note of E Major, without so much as a pause, is such a jarring harmonic experience that I would have burst out laughing, if it wasn’t so piteous. 

Segovia always played the Op. 9 set of variations without the Introduction, and so he published his edition of it. Already in 1934, Domingo Prat decried this travesty in his Segovia entry in his Diccionario. Deploramos la falta de seriedad artística (we deplore the lack of artistic seriousness) he said in this regard. Strong words that no one paid attention to at the time. But guitar aesthetics have changed considerably in the last few decades. It does no justice to Segovia’s memory, to call attention in this manner to some of his most outrageous perfidies. Not today, it does not.

As for Parkening’s memory lapses in Op. 9, the muddy arpeggios in the finale and the ropy thudding basses when he hit the fifth and sixth strings and the flat dynamics all the way from mezzo-piano to mezzo-forte: well, some people loved it, so it seems. The only conclusion I can reach is that they were not listening to the music. As for the performer’s own sense of hearing, I have my doubts as well. Anyway, I had my fill of this and left in the intermission.

That was, for me, the bottom of the pits, the septic tank into which this entire noble experiment called the Guitar Foundation of America might sink, if it does not find a way to prevent such caricatures of music, such indignities to everything it stands for, from ever being visited upon it again. The only thoughts I still had running through my mind, and the Lagavulin was no help in answering them, was how the judges, those who heard Parkening and stayed to the end, those who gave him a standing ovation, could have had the insolence of passing judgment on the playing of the four finalists the following day.

A few days later, I was in Cuernavaca, Mexico, un verdadero paraíso, a true paradise, where I heard an awesome assemblage of guitar talent.

Copyright © 1999 by Editions Orphée, Inc. All Rights Reserved.


1 The premier of the guitar and string quartet version of the same work was given by Kazuhito Yamashita and members of the Chinese National Orchestra in Taipei, Taiwan, the week before, on October 17th.
2 Actually, all Mertz did here was to adapt for the guitar several arrangements of Schubert lieder made by Franz Liszt, but that is another story.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.