Hooked on classics

OF all Christopher Parkening's public performances - and over the past 20 years he has given more than 1,000 concerts - perhaps the most nerve-wracking was in 1964, at the University of Berkeley in San Francisco.

He was 15, and had been playing guitar for four years, when it was announced that Andres Segovia, the world's most renowned guitarist, would give a series of master classes.

A friend of Segovia's had heard Parkening play in Los Angeles, and recommended him for a scholarship. So on the morning of the master-class the young Californian sat nervously waiting for the famous guitarist.

'I remember that day clearly,' said Parkening, now 47. 'Segovia had transcribed Bach's Chaconne for the guitar. It's 13 minutes long and a difficult piece for any instrument, so my first teacher had re-fingered it to make it easier to play.

'Segovia's wife was sitting next to him, I remember, and suddenly about a third of the way through the piece I heard a foot come down loudly on the stage floor. I stopped playing and looked up: his wife was holding him back, and he was furious.

'Why have you changed the fingering?' 'I said it was my teacher who had changed the fingering.' 'Who is your teacher? Change it back tomorrow,' he said, and I spent the whole night practising, learning the piece again.

'Segovia could be terrifying: he was very gracious if he liked your playing,' said Parkening, who is performing here later this month. 'If he didn't, he was ruthless.' He said he later became good friends with Segovia, who died in 1987 at 94, almost solely responsible for reviving interest in the guitar as a classical instrument.

In 1989 Parkening, now one of America's foremost classical guitarists, recorded a tribute to his former teacher using Segovia's own concert guitar on loan from a museum in Madrid. 'That was a huge honour,' he said. The fingering on a guitar is very important, Parkening said, because although there are five different ways of playing middle C, each combination of fret and string gives a different quality of tone.

He started the guitar at 11, with the vague idea of playing rock 'n' roll: 'My cousin was a guitarist at MGM studios; he used to come over and play, and I loved it. I said I wanted to learn, and he gave me two pieces of advice; start with classical, to get a good foundation, and get the records of Andres Segovia, the best guitarist in the world.' Parkening, encouraged by his parents, did those two things, and became hooked, practising in every spare moment. As a talented teenager he was quickly facing the demands of the international concert circuit.

By the time he was 30, he had had enough: he went through a personal crisis, and gave up the guitar and a lifestyle that involved giving more than 90 public performances a year.

For four years Parkening lived on a ranch in Montana, fishing, riding and thinking. He was converted to an active Christian faith, and returned to the musical world 13 years ago with a new conviction and purpose.

'It took me less practice than I thought [to get back to concert standard],' he said. 'I had a whole new sense of commitment to live my life and to play my music for the glory of God.' This is Parkening's first visit to Hong Kong - his other visits to Asia have consisted of two 15-concert tours of Japan - and he has picked a programme to reflect the breadth of the classical guitar repertoire.

'It will start with early music written for lute, by John Dahlen; then there will be some preludes by the Brazilian composer Villa-Lobos, a Spanish piece by Albeniz, and of course some music arranged by Segovia,' he said. 'I will also play some duets with another American guitarist, David Brandon, who was also a student of Segovia's.

'Probably the most unusual piece will be just prior to the intermission: it's called Koyunbaba, by Carlo Domenicani, and the unusual thing is that the entire guitar is tuned to C sharp minor.' Christopher Parkening at City Hall Concert Hall. April 28 at 8 pm. Tickets $60 to $150 from Urbtix. Call 2734-9009