An Interview with Christopher ParkeningBy Tony Morris
Christopher Parkening has been one of the most popular, if not the most
popular American classical guitarist for almost three decades. His concerts are
often sold-out, and his recordings sell more than any other American classical
guitarist. He is also as sincere and down-to-earth a human being as one could
ever hope to meet. He is a talented artist unburdened by excessive ego or
Christopher Parkening has been one of the most popular, if not the most popular American classical guitarist for almost three decades. His concerts are often sold-out, and his recordings sell more than any other American classical guitarist. He is also as sincere and down-to-earth a human being as one could ever hope to meet. He is a talented artist unburdened by excessive ego or pretense.The following interview was recorded for broadcast on Classical Guitar Alive!, a radio program originating from KMFA radio in Austin, which is being developed for nation-wide syndication via satellite. Excerpts from this interview were used in a special artist profile edition of Classical Guitar Alive! featuring Parkening. The interview took place at the Meyerson Auditorium in Dallas, Texas immediately after Christopher Parkening's July 15, 1995 performance with the Dallas Symphony Orchestra.
With Jan Sloman, violin; Christopher Adkins, cello; and Alfred Mouledous, harpsichord
With the Dallas Symphony Orchestra:
TONY MORRIS: Well, first of all, congratulations on your concert, it obviously went very well, and everyone liked it, a sold-out show [note: the Meyerson Auditorium seats nearly 4,000]. The first thing I wanted to say is, I really enjoyed the way you programmed the concert, with the solos before hand and then some chamber music before the orchestral part. Whose idea was that for the programming?
CHRISTHOPHER PARKENING: Well, I can't take credit for the programming, really it was [Dallas Symphony music director/conductor] Andrew Litton who came up with the Italian theme of his summer festival. And when they asked me about participating, and especially to do a "pre-concert" concert of all Italian music, we came up with the two lute pieces, the "Bianco fiore" and the "Saltarello" and then the "Suite in D" by Ponce in the style of Alessandro Scarlatti, and then the "Koyunbaba" by Carlo Domeniconi, and the "Trio in C", which I, actually, I never performed before live excepting with the Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields [with] Iona Brown. We basically toured with the piece as the "Concerto in A major", so it was fun to do with the players here.
AM: I think that's a great way to program a concert where you're adding more and more people; it makes a lot more varied program. I wanted to ask you about the "Capriol Suite". You've recorded that also, and that's the first recording that is with guitar. How did you decide to record this piece? ItÕs originally with string orchestra, what made you think that this would sound good as a guitar piece?
PARKENING: I'm fortunate to work with an arranger by the name of Patrick Russ. He's done a number of orchestrations for me, arrangements... He's actually a film orchestrator, and one day about five years ago he came to me and said, "I want you to hear this piece, it's called the "Capriol Suite". And he said "I think it would make a great piece for guitar and string orchestra!" And a year or so after that, EMI [records] wanted me to do a recording with the Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields, of principally Vivaldi concertos, and the "Capriol Suite" kinda fit in with that. And so we took it on tour, and he made the transcription and we ended up recording the piece. But it was actually Pat Russ' idea.
AM: Well, It certainly sounds amiable to the guitar.
I wanted to ask you about another arrangement of another piece, William Walton's "Five Bagatelles" [for guitar and orchestra]. Is that another Patrick Russ arrangement?
PARKENING: Yes it is! Though, it actually wasn't his idea, it was the idea of Lady Walton, whose good friend was Christopher Palmer. And Christopher had a close association with William Walton. He [Christopher Palmer] told me about this piece, of course that I was familiar with, that [Julian] Bream had recorded the "Five Bagatelles".
AM: ...As a solo guitar piece-
PARKENING: ...As a solo guitar work, and later Walton had re-written the piece. He put it "A free transcription of the guitar work", though for solo orchestra. And it was Lady Walton's idea to kind of "mesh the two together" in terms of a new guitar concerto. And we premiered it the San Francisco Symphony about... oh, nine months or so before we did the recording with the Royal Philharmonic.
But it's always nice, I think, to add new pieces to the guitar repertoire. They [EMI] had wanted me to do the two Rodrigo Concertos, which we did, and I thought something else, that was new and a little different, would be nice on the recording. So we did that at the time.
AM: One of the things that's kind of a recurrent theme among Christopher Parkening fans is, you ask them, "What's the thing that you really enjoy about his playing?" The thing that always comes back is "the sound, the tone." Just this... well, it's very hard to describe in words, sound, but just this warm, warm tone. Is that something that came naturally to you, or did you work on, try to develop ?
PARKENING: Well, that's interesting that you mention that. I have loved Segovia's sound for years and tried to emulate some of that.
I'm often asked why I believe that Segovia was the greatest guitarist of all, and I have kind of boiled it down to four points: One was his great technique, of course. Secondly, was his uniquely beautiful sound. Thirdly was the artistic instinct which he had, which I believe was natural-born; the feeling he played with, the musicianship, as it were. He played with great soul. And lastly, was his ability to communicate all of that to the public. Segovia had a great charisma with his audiences. But, the second point being sound, I loved his sound, and worked on trying to get a variety of different tonal colors.
I remember there was one section in the Ponce Prelude that Segovia got this great sound with the right hand thumb. I was studying with him and I asked him to play the piece. I had tried and experimented with all different ways, and couldn't get the sound that I wanted, and I asked him to play it for me. And he was playing it for me about three feet away, and suddenly I saw what he was doing with his right hand that enabled him to get this great thumb sound.
So, Segovia inspired me, was certainly my musical inspiration growing up, and his sound inspired me greatly as well.
AM: So what was it like, since you mention Segovia, and you recorded a CD, "A Tribute to Segovia": some of the greatest pieces of his repertoire. What was it like to get to study with one of your idols?
PARKENING: Well, to put it simply, it was scary! [laughs] I'll never forget the first time being able to study with him. I was the youngest of nine performing students chosen from all over the world to study with him at his first United States master class at the University of California at Berkeley way back in 1964. We were kind of sitting in a semi-circle around him, and he would look through those thick Coke-bottle glasses of his and when he'd say your name youÕd have a semi-cardiac arrest! [laughs] And youÕd realize as you're playing, that just a few feet away from him, that you're playing for the greatest guitarist in the world.
In fact, that's how I began the guitar. I had started the guitar at the age of eleven, really with the inspiration of a cousin of mine , who, at that time was staff guitarist at MGM studios, and his nameÕs Jack Marshall. He gave me this advice, he said "Start with classical, first, and you'll get a good foundation in guitar technique." And then he said, "Secondly, get the records of Andres Segovia, he's the greatest guitarist in the world." So, you know, four years later, there I am in front of this idol of mine, this musical inspiration, and trying to play.
AM: That's some quick progress!
PARKENING: Well, it was by God's Grace, but nevertheless, it was a very scary experience, and a very rewarding one as well.
AM: A few years ago you recorded a CD with soprano Kathleen Battle. In my opinion, I think that's the best recording of classical guitar and voice. What was it like working with her, and how did that project come about?
PARKENING: Well, it came about this way, my manager, Sam Niefeld, was Kathy's manager, at Columbia Artists Management. He said, "Chris, weÕve worked together a long time, but," he said, "I've never suggested you to collaborate with anyone before until this young lady has come along." He said, "I want you to hear her sing." And she was performing in San Francisco. So, I went up there and I heard Kathy sing, and of course she has this glorious voice. It's high, and pure, and I really felt it would blend so nicely with classical guitar. It wasn't a heavy operatic voice.
And we did "Pleasures of their Company". We did a performance at Lincoln Center, New York and then a month or so later again we performed again at the Ravinia Festival in Chicago and then went right from there to Los Angeles to do the album.
And I'm pleased to say that this coming August we're scheduled to do a Christmas recording together.
AM: Oh, great! That was my next question, if there was going to be a "Volume II" of that.
PARKENING: Well, so to speak. With a Christmas recording that probably won't be released until the fall of '96. We're scheduled to record it however this summer. But Kathy and I have performed a number of places together, not only the places I mentioned, but on the Grammy Awards,...
AM: And that recording was nominated for a Grammy Award.
PARKENING: Yes, I'm pleased to say. Also "Good Morning America" and several other places. SheÕs a great, great soprano. I'm proud to record with her.
AM: You've recorded some chamber music as well, a piece for guitar and harpsichord, some guitar duets. Let me ask you this, how do you pick pieces for your repertoire? What goes through your mind ? Do you listen to music?
PARKENING: Pretty much so. Sometimes thereÕs a theme that we work around. Years ago my producer Patty Larson, with Angel/EMI said, "I really feel you should do an all-Bach album." And they came up with "Parkening Plays Bach". Then, in the early eighties, when I became a Christian, she suggested an all- sacred album, which we came up with "Simple Gifts". And shortly after that, "A Bach Celebration" based upon Bach's sacred works for orchestra.
But it will pretty much will be a theme and we listen to a lot of music before. But I guess the bottom line for me is it has to be something that I truly like. Because when all is said and done, you have to play a piece over and over and over again. Not only on the concert stage, but hundreds of times before you actually commit the piece to recording, and I guess you better like the piece if youÕre gonna do all that work on it! [laughs].
AM: Speaking of "Simple Gifts", that's an audience favorite. When you first decided to play that piece, did you listen to the Copland arrangement?
PARKENING: I sure did, I sure did. You know, I had a friend who had done an arrangement of it, Ronald Ravenscroft. And some other friends of mine, John Sutherland, and his wife, B.J. Sutherland did part of it as well; it was kind of a group effort. Though, it's a great piece, and a highlight in "Appalachian Spring", where Aaron Copland uses it.
AM: Well, is there a question that you'd like to answer? Anything else you'd like to say?
PARKENING: Well,... I guess a few years ago I took what's termed in my bio a "sabbatical". And it was, for all intents and purposes, designed to be a permanent retirement. I had played as many as ninety concerts a year in my twenties...
AM: Per year?
PARKENING: Per year. And was more or less burned out of hotel rooms, and concert halls, and airplane travel. And we were turning down about two hundred dates a year.
I guess as a footnote, I've always loved the out-of-doors, the mountains, the country, and in particular fly-fishing for trout. My dad started me learning how to fly-cast when I was six years old, even before I began the guitar. So, he retired at the age of forty seven, and I thought thirty would be a good age to retire [laughs].
So, I called my manager at Columbia Artists Management, and I made a similar call to Capitol Records, as well as a call to the University of Southern California, where I was teaching as the head of their guitar department, and I said, "I've found my dream; I've found a ranch in the southwest part of the state of Montana, and it's got a beautiful trout stream on it, and I'm moving up here from L.A., and I'm hanging up the guitar!" I was asked to start a guitar department at Montana State University, which I did, but, apart from a small amount of token teaching that I did there, I didn't play the guitar at all for about four years.
It was during that period of time that I became a Christian, and my priorities changed, and I guess I always loved the music of Bach, growing up, but even more so, when I read what he said about music, when he said and I quote "The aim and final reason of all music is none else but the glory of God."
AM: And he inscribed in all his music that.
PARKENING: Exactly. The initials "S.D.G." standing for "Soli Deo Gloria", "For God Alone the Glory". And I got to thinking, if Bach could use his great ability or talent for that purpose, that would be the least that I could do with whatever ability or talent the Lord had given me. So, I called up my manager, and...
AM: I bet they were glad to get a different call from you this time!
PARKENING: Well, I said, "Guess what, I'd like to go back on the road again, go back to touring and recording again, but this time for a different purpose." And that purpose would be to honor and glory my Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. That was the purpose for me to begin playing the guitar again.
And honestly, Tony, I've felt great fulfillment and deep-down joy from that. I was kind of empty before, playing all these concerts with the goal in mind of retiring at the age of thirty, and once I got all that, it was pretty much emptiness.
So, I'm back playing the guitar for an entirely different purpose, and that's given me great peace, joy and fulfillment in my life.
AM: And you're back to doing about ninety concerts a year?
PARKENING: [laughs] Almost that many.
AM: A lot of people don't know that Bach was basically a church musician. And the greatest composer of all time, but basically a church musician.
PARKENING: Right. I played at Kennedy Center a few months ago, and I was interviewed by the Washington Post. He asked me an interesting question; he said, " If you had to say in one sentence what motivates you, what would it be?" And I thought for a moment and I said this, " I have a commitment to personal excellence, which at its heart seeks to honor and glorify the Lord with my life, and with the music that I play." That would be about it.
My dad, fortunately, inspired me to work hard when I was young. He taught me discipline and the encouragement was to be the best that you could be, seek personal excellence and let the success fall where it may. And frankly, thatÕs the advice that I give young guitar students that come to me in master classes. Just be the best that you can be, learn to work hard, discipline yourself, and strive for personal excellence and let the success fall where it may.
AM: Good. Sound advice. Thanks very much, I appreciate it.
PARKENING: You're very welcome.
Tony Morris |
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