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.
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.