Classical guitar virtuoso in our midst

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    Classical guitar master Christopher Parkening joins Pepperdine faculty, hosts first master class.

    By James McGowan and Caroline Thomas/Special to The Malibu Times

    Sleepy Malibu has been home to many great artists, but few, if any, have chosen to practice their craft here. That has changed with the arrival of Christopher Parkening, America’s (and perhaps the world’s) preeminent classical guitarist, as a new faculty member at Pepperdine University.

    Parkening is not a household name to most outside of the music world, unlike his mentor, the legendary Andres Segovia. This Southern California native, who studied at USC and UCLA, found himself in Spain at 20 years old, studying with the greatest guitarist in the world.

    “I started playing at 11,” says Parkening. “My cousin inspired me and said, ‘Do two things: Start with classical guitar and get the recordings of Andres Segovia.’ “

    Within a few short years, Parkening found himself playing 90 concerts a year around the world, but he quickly burned out and attempted early retirement to a ranch in Montana. After four years, his priorities changed and fly-fishing for trout turned out not to be the end-all he had hoped for.

    Parkening states that, before Segovia, “The guitar had never been played in the Carnegie Halls of the world. He single-handedly brought the guitar to the status of a major classical instrument.”

    Parkening realized his duty to pass on Segovia’s legacy and an offer to chair the classical guitar department at Pepperdine dovetailed nicely with his deep devotion to Christianity.

    Since 1995, Pepperdine has been home to the semi-annual Stotsenberg Classical Guitar competition. Dorothy Stotsenberg and her late husband, Edward, devotees of the classical guitar, devised the competition as a means to promote the art form and nurture its growth. Aspiring young guitarists the world over vie to be finalists in the event. The addition of Parkening to the faculty brings Pepperdine to the forefront of the classical guitar world.

    On Saturday, Nov. 21, Parkening conducted his first master class featuring six aspiring young players from around the world. While the master class environment can be a pressure-cooker for the student, Parkening’s gentle persona made it comfortable.

    Gracious and amicable, he exudes a nurturing demeanor toward his students-a marked contrast to Segovia who, legend has it, could be harsh and impatient with even the most gifted player.

    The students were more nervous about performing in front of maestro Parkening than for the audience.

    Patrick Anderson, a USC masters student, says, “Usually you go through the jitters. It’s hard not to be nervous.”

    David Creevy, who came from Ireland, says, “I felt pressure to play well. The first handshake on stage was the first time I’d met him.”

    Each student would then play through his composition once, after which he was subjected to the maestro’s critique. For each, Parkening would offer suggestions on how to phrase a section here, alter a fingering there, all the while stressing the importance of playing the piece musically, as opposed to simply mastering its technical demands.

    As he told one student, “This piece is a lullaby. Try to play it as a mother would sing it to her child.”

    At times the suggestions were so subtle that a simple three-note passage would be played several times, with Parkening coaxing just the right combination of tone and feeling out of it.

    All seemed touched by Parkening’s mastery.

    “He’s one of the biggest guitar names in the 20th century-it’s a tremendous honor,” says Anderson.

    Creevy, who had come from so far, was moved and inspired. “It was totally worth it. He’s a guitar hero. He plays from his own soul.”