Music » Music Stories & Interviews

Not your average virtuoso

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Your average classical musician, so the stereotype goes, spends off hours indulging in the finer things of life such as grazing at French restaurants, gazing at great art and soaking up literary classics. Christopher Parkening, one of the world's leading virtuosos of classical guitar, puts on his gloves and grabs a fishing rod when the music stops. He travels to Florida's Gulf Coast every summer to fly-fish for tarpon. That's his story, and he's sticking to it.

"The biggest I've caught and released on a fly is 182 pounds," Parkening, 51, says from his home in Los Angeles. "The world-record tarpon is 188 pounds. Tarpon come in pretty shallow water, between five and 10 feet, and it's all sight fishing. Most grown men, their knees shake when a school of tarpon come by. It's not wine tasting, or pingpong."

One gets the sense from talking to the cheery musician that he approaches his lifelong hobby, sparked by childhood trout-fishing expeditions to the High Sierras with his father, in the same manner he does his instrument. Not to mention his zeal for mentor and former teacher Andres Segovia, the legendary Spanish master toasted on last year's "Christopher Parkening Celebrates Segovia" multimedia CD. Parkening thrives on wholehearted commitment to his passions, a commitment that he has nurtured through performances at the White House and at Carnegie Hall for its "100th Anniversary" celebration.

The guitarist, who performs March 28 at Rollins College as part of the Bach Festival Concert Series, chose classical music in part due to the influence of a cousin who was a studio musician and in part because of the sheer challenge it presented. "My father stressed the pursuit of personal excellence, which required hard work and discipline," Parkening says. "I told him I wanted to play guitar and he said, ‘OK, but you need to get up at five o'clock in the morning and practice and hour-and-a-half before school, and an hour-and-a-half after.' "

Parkening started playing guitar at age 11. He found another reason to practice the following year after catching the 66-year-old Segovia in concert and getting an autograph backstage. Five years later, the young hopeful was studying with the acclaimed master at the University of California at Berkeley. Segovia was a tough taskmaster and, ultimately, something of an encouraging father figure. Segovia, who died at the age of 94 in 1987, also was a role model whose mission -- elevating the guitar from a role as disparaged folk instrument to a revered place on stage alongside other classical instruments -- has largely been adopted by Parkening.

"He was great because of his great technique, his uniquely beautiful sound," Parkening says. "And there was his artistic instinct, the passion or the soul that he put into the music. The musical expression was really incredible, and the variety of tonal colors that he got. He had a great charisma with his audience. That, along with his persistence in believing in the instrument and championing the cause of the guitar, really enabled him to bring it to a height that had never before happened."

Those who have heard Parkening alone, alongside former student David Brandon, Kathleen Battle, Placido Domingo, in tandem with any number of orchestras or all over the John Williams-penned score of "Stepmom" might offer the same kind of praise for Parkening that he does for his old teacher.

Parkening, who for his current tour is playing a 1967 Jose Ramirez guitar formerly owned by Segovia, sounds as if his romance with guitar were as vital as it was four decades ago, when he first fell in love with the instrument.

"You touch it with your fingers," he says. "There's no plectrum or bow. Everything is handplucked. Depending on how you angle your hand and how you pluck the strings you can create a tremendous variety of sound. Some guitars have as many as five different middle C's, not counting harmonics. There are few instruments that are so intimate."


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