Guitarist Christopher Parkening has sandwiched me into a series of phone interviews he is doing in advance of concerts in Philadelphia, Kansas City, Palm Springs and Salt Lake City. The manner is open, the voice kind of "gee whiz" in its response to my questions and the answers mostly predictable.
Yes, he is looking forward to his return to Salt Lake. He previously played a pair of recitals here, in 1972 and 1976, but this will be his - in fact any classical guitarist's - first appearance with the Utah Symphony, Friday and Saturday at Symphony Hall. And no, he doesn't mind the fact that he's playing the Rodrigo "Concierto de Aranjuez" and the Vivaldi Guitar Concerto (originally for lute), even though he acknowledges he must have performed each more than a 100 times. (They will likewise be paired on his Philadelphia concerts.)"Beautiful music is still beautiful music," the 41-year-old Parkening says, recalling that his teacher Andres Segovia told him it was a good idea to polish a piece before you record it, often by taking it on the road before your date with it in the studio. And sure enough, Parkening is set to record the Rodrigo as part of an upcoming five-album series for EMI.
Working with Segovia, he says, was of course wonderful. "Musically he's been my inspiration as long as I can remember. First for his great technique, then his unique sound, with its burnished multiple colors and timbre changes, thirdly for the feeling and expression of his playing - he had incredible musicial instincts - and lastly the charisma, his ability to communicate with an audience. Somehow he put all of them together."
The guitarist's Grammy-nominated collaboration with soprano Kathleen Battle ("The Pleasure of Their Company") was put together, he says, by their then joint manager at Columbia Artists, Sam Niefeld. "In 20 years I've never asked you to collaborate with anybody," Parkening recalls him saying, "but this girl is unique. You really have to hear her."
But what isn't so expected are the reasons he gives for what that same management describes as the "three-year hiatus" in his career when he withdrew from the concert stage in the early part of this decade, while still in his 30s and unquestionably the most acclaimed American guitarist of his generation.
"What prompted it?" Parkening ponders. "For lack of a better word, burnout. I had been playing upwards of 90 concerts a year. I was tired of airplanes, traveling, of `life on the road.' I'd always loved the outdoors, particularly fly fishing - my father was a fly fisherman - so I found a beautiful ranch with a trout stream on it in the southwestern part of Montana. My wife raised horses and we decided that would be where we'd like to live."
Indeed Parkening's father was a fly fisherman. In 1967 he won the Western United States casting championship, an honor that went to his 20-year-old son the following year. So what lured the younger Parkening back?
"In my own mind I had retired," he says. "I had not planned to continue playing concerts, I didn't plan on going back on the road and I was content at first with life on the ranch. But after several years without that, or any recording, I really became unhappy with my life. I found myself questioning what it was all about, when you have everything you've ever wanted and you're unhappy."
Also, Parkening says, "during that time I became a Christian and my prioritites changed. I had always been inspired by Bach, and what he writes is that the aim and final reason of all music is the glory of God. I thought to myself, if that's what he did with his talent then the least I can do is glorify the Lord with mine."
The result, he maintains, is "a peace, a joy and contentment I never had before." Significantly he still hasn't given up on Montana ("I try to get up there every August to do a master class at Montana State University") or on fly fishing. (Two years ago he captured the top prize in the International Gold Cup Tarpon Tournament in Florida.) But his renewed faith in God, and his career, has left him, in his words, "grateful for the opportunity to play music."
As a performer and teacher, Segovia is still his model. They first met, Parkening says, at a dinner party at the home of Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco, whose D major Guitar Concerto Parkening had recently performed with the Young Musicians Foundation Orchestra. (He later premiered the C major Concerto.) That led to formal study with the Spanish master in both the U.S. and Spain.
"Segovia talked very little about technique," Parkening remembers. "He assumed you had that when you came. The major concentration was on interpretation. As a side to that I focused on his beautiful sound, and I would scrutinize his hand position from several feet away to see how he obtained it."
Was he successful? "Not completely," Parkening replies - another unexpected response. "I'm not sure you can ever be completely successful in emulating the sound, technique and musicianship of another great artist. At the end, as you mature, it turns into your own musical expression and that's a combination of a lot of different influences, some of them subconscious."