Interlude 11: Julian and me

Whenever I get a call on my iPhone it’s announced by a hearty, chipper, and distinctly English voice saying “Hello, Christopher!” over and over again. The voice belongs to Julian Bream—one of the greatest classical guitarists of the modern age. How it came to be my ringtone is a story.

Bream, whose concert and recording career spanned sixty years, was one of the first artists to build an international career after Segovia really established the classical guitar as a modern concert instrument. But their approaches to the instrument and its music were decidedly different. Segovia’s playing focused on beautiful tone and his best performances reflect a somewhat Apollonian personality. Bream, by contrast, was decidedly Dionysian. His tone was not always lush and beautiful, but his performances crackled with life, color, and occasional flashes of impish humor.

He was not my first guitar crush (Christopher Parkening) or my second (John Williams). But I loved the two duo albums that Bream and Williams did together, and when I first heard Bream perform live in Minneapolis in 1976 I was smitten.

In the fall of 1978 I was at a party at my guitar teacher’s house in Vermillion when someone told me that Bream and Williams were on a tour together that would bring them to Ann Arbor, Michigan. On the spot, another guitar student and I decided to go. He had a VW Beetle that he thought was up to the 800-mile trip, so I called the next morning and ordered tickets. We drove all night, with a stop at a rest area to clean up, ate dinner at McDonalds, and went to the concert. Afterwards we went backstage to meet the artists and I got them to autograph my program.

Three weeks later I heard Bream in a solo concert in Minneapolis and once again went backstage to meet him after the concert. He recognized me from the Ann Arbor concert and asked if I was following him, and we shared a chuckle.

A more meaningful encounter came about 8 years later. I was in graduate school at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. Bream was booked on a campus concert series and I was given the opportunity to pick him up at the airport and to see that he had what he needed while in town. This led to conversation over beers in a local establishment. During our chat I mentioned that I was preparing a recital of my own that would include Benjamin Britten’s Nocturnal, a pinnacle of the repertoire that was written for Bream. He asked me if I would like to play it for him.

Gulp!

It was a very generous offer, and I was terrorized at the prospect. But, of course, it was an offer I couldn’t refuse. And so, the morning after his recital, I arrived at his room with my guitar and played for him. It is perhaps the most nervous I have ever been, but after my first halting beginning I found some calm and played. He was kind and helpful with his suggestions, although he observed somewhat acerbically that I was not following the fingerings given in the score; fingerings he had put there! Afterwards he signed my score and then I took him to the airport.

In 2014 an English author named Thea Abbott posted on an internet forum dedicated to the classical guitar that she was working with Bream on a biography. I contacted her and learned that the project was not under contract so I decided to pursue it. With Norton’s blessing I made a contact offer. Weeks went by without a response, and when it finally came it was disappointing: author and subject had had a falling out and it appeared that the project could not move forward.

I did not want to lose the opportunity to do the book, so I wrote the most persuasive letter I could to Bream. It read, in part:

In your many collaborations with composers over the years you must have faced situations where the composer’s ideas didn’t quite work. Sometimes these problems were technical: an interval that the left hand couldn’t quite stretch, or a chord voicing that didn’t fit well on the fingerboard. Sometimes, perhaps, the problem was broader and involved your understanding as a performer of what would or would not work for an audience. You persevered through these difficulties and the guitar’s repertoire is much the richer for it.

I believe that the literature of the guitar, guitarists, and music in general will be the poorer if your biography does not move forward and I hope that I can help you and Thea to move past any obstacles to continue your work together and bring this book to completion.

I posted the letter and waited.

A few days later I returned from lunch to find a message on my office phone. It began “Hello Christopher, if I may call you such. It’s Julian Bream here…” I called him back and we talked about how things might proceed. He was amused to hear that we had met previously and recalled our encounter in Ithaca quite clearly. This was the first of several exchanges we had about the project.

I wish I could report that the result of all this was a happy ending and that a biography of this important and colorful artists is forthcoming. Alas, I don’t believe it will ever come to be. But I have some wonderful memories.

And a great ringtone.

Interlude 10: Practicing

In July 2007 an item in the New York Times caught my eye. It was a listing of upcoming readings at the (now defunct) Barnes & Noble bookstore at Lincoln Center in New York City. One of the listed titles was a book called Practicing: A Musician’s Return to Music by Glenn Kurtz. The thumbnail of the book cover showed the soundhole of a classical guitar crossed by strings; there was no other information.

I thought perhaps it might be some kind of instructional book on how to practice. In any event the illustration intrigued me, so I went online to find the book on Amazon where it was described as “The remarkable odyssey of a classical guitar prodigy who abandons his beloved instrument in defeat at the age of twenty-five, but comes back to it years later with a new kind of passion.. “

So, of course, I ordered a copy.

I don’t want to say too much about the content of the book; if you have been reading this blog and you haven’t read Practicing then you should. But in brief, it tells the story of a young man who shows early promise as a classical guitarist. He gets a good music education, and sets off to build a career. Then, quite suddenly, he puts down his guitar and walks away. Years later, he finds a way to reconnect with the instrument and with the part of his life it represents. Part meditation, part memoir, part cautionary tale, part celebration, it is deeply felt and beautifully written. I devoured it.

After finishing the book I did something I had never done before: I wrote a fan letter. It read in part: 

Part of my response is a strong frisson of recognition. In some ways your story is so similar to my own that the feeling I got reading it sometime bordered on creepy! (…) The guitar remains in my life, sometimes on the periphery and sometimes closer to the center. My regrets don’t cut as deeply as yours seemed to. Partly I think that’s because in my heart I must have known at some point that I was pursuing a dream that my talent wouldn’t support. My biggest regret remains that when I really had the time to focus and practice I didn’t do enough of either, and now that my desire is strong I don’t have the time!”

Glenn was both prompt and gracious in his reply:

It is very moving to me to hear these stories of return–some involving painful losses, like my own, others more practical or circumstantial. But I’m flattered and grateful that this experience resonates with people, and I’m amazed, each time, by how many people identify with the emotions of returning, the joy of rediscovering a once-lost part of one’s life. 

Practicing made me think seriously, and for perhaps the first time, about just what the guitar meant to me and about what making music meant to my life. The spark of it had never gone out in me, but the author’s story provided a kindling for that spark and I determined that this time I would work harder to sustain the flame. Within days I had arranged for a lesson with one of New York’s best-known guitar teachers and in a happy coincidence my lesson was to take place on the same day that Glenn would read from his book at Barnes & Noble.

The lesson was a disappointment. After hearing me play (decently, I thought) the teacher described a course of study that would involve completely reinventing my right hand technique. At the age of 51 I wasn’t really interested in starting from scratch; I wanted to learn to make the most of what I had. When our lesson ended I told him that I was going to Barnes & Noble and described Glenn’s book. The teacher, intrigued, decided to accompany me.

The reading was enjoyable, and hearing Glenn’s words in his own voice was very moving. Afterwards I introduced myself to Glenn and we chatted for a moment before I introduced the teacher (whose name was well known to Glenn) and explained about my lesson; I think Glenn was pleased to see that his words had spurred me into actual action.

We corresponded once or twice over the next few years…he thanked me for a nice review on Amazon, I congratulated him on the publication of his next book. After starting at W.W. Norton and having the opportunity to do trade publishing for the first time I asked him to lunch to talk about his path to becoming a published writer. Of course the talk turned eventually to guitars. It was an enjoyable lunch and we’ve continued to find excuses to meet once or twice a year. At lunch last December I told him about my plan to start this project and he shared some ideas about what his next book might be. We agreed to check in six months later to check on each other’s progress and met for lunch in June. Soon it will be time to meet again.

I’ve been an avid reader since my youth, and I have read many books that moved me or made a lasting impression. But there is perhaps no book that has had as much impact as Practicing because of the role that it played in bringing the guitar back into my life. 

A progress report

In January I set myself the goal of learning and performing the Chaconne in public before the end of the year. It’s November and The Chaconne Project is in its eleventh month. That’s more time than it takes to grow a human being from scratch, which makes the pace of my progress on Bach’s masterpiece seem positively languorous. But I have enjoyed taking my time, sometimes spending an hour just experimenting with the fingering for one measure, or devising a drill or study to master a particularly difficult passage. I am happy with my progress, with the editing done and the piece in my fingers…more or less.

The next phase is to develop my interpretation of the piece—to move from playing the notes to making music. I’ve been doing some of this all along, of course, as I made decisions about the arrangement and fingerings and began playing through sections of the piece. But now that I am playing the entire Chaconne I am starting to play with the piece more, and as I do that new possibilities appear. As I become surer in my command of the piece I have more interpretive options. In the past I might have considered a piece at this stage ready to perform, but it isn’t there yet. I have a lot of ways to play individual sections of the Chaconne but they don’t yet add up to a convincing whole…and that is what I am working towards.

As the end of the year approaches I’m thinking more and more about performances. Later this month I hope to play the piece for a group of guitarist friends in an informal setting. Sometime in December I’d like to try doing a live web performance (if I can figure out how); as an alternative I’ll make a video. And a couple of exciting opportunities to extend my project into 2020 have arisen. First, I’m hoping to play one or two house concerts in Florida right around the turn of the year thanks to the efforts of a very good friend. That will be my first opportunity to play the piece in front of a live audience not made up entirely of friendly guitarists, and it will also serve as a trial run for what comes next. On February 7, 2020, I’ll play the Chaconne along with other works in recital at Georgetown University as part of their Friday Music Series. It’s a wonderful opportunity and a fitting culmination to The Chaconne Project.