As someone said, the guitar is easy to play and extremely hard to play well. But in Dallas you need only walk down the street to know that a lot of people are giving it a shot. From at least one house per block some kid is broadcasting his licks and scales, Fender amp turned up to nine. While the piano stays behind in the living room, the guitar goes to the park and to parties, in the back of a car or strapped to a moped.
It comes as a surprise to most people that Dallas is one of the two major centers in this country for the classical guitar. (San Francisco is the other.) In the last 10 years, guitar has taken hold here in a way that’s little short of phenomenal, and serious amateurs and first-ranked professionals have formed a growing, cohesive new institution on the musical scene, the Dallas Society for the Classical Guitar. The Society brings together talent, numbers, a lot of six-strings, and a willingness to organize.
The energy of the Guitar Society is complemented by programs in local colleges and universities. Ric Madriguera, a nephew of Andres Segovia, teaches fulltime at East field. Some of his students are musicians from honky tonks on Harry Hines who come in sheepishly, wanting to learn how to tune their instruments. He says a whole new world opens up for them when he teaches alternating bass (playing the bottom note of a chord on one beat and the rest a beat later). Madriguera says, "What makes the guitar attractive to me is its versatility. You can play any type of Western music on it; it has enormous color capabilities. The guitar is a warm, human instrument. People have a rapport with it."
Carlo Pezzimenti, a Cleveland-born performer who studied in Italy and, like Madriguera, in Spain, has just put out his first recording, and teaches part-time at Brookhaven. Then there are Dallas-born Phil Conrad at El Centra, Chris Maguire at Northlake, Bill Gangel at Richland, and Dan Hodan at Mountain View. Outside the community colleges are at least half a dozen other expert teachers, many of whom perform nationwide. The superbly gifted Tom Johnson teaches at North Texas. Charles Postlewate teaches in the degree-granting program at Arlington, and John Foster, a very competent guitarist, is at TWU. There is nearly universal agreement, however, that one teacher and virtuoso performer makes Dallas the guitar town that it is: SMU’s Robert Guthrie.
Guthrie took over SMU’s guitar department in 1973. He had been on scholarship at the North Carolina School of Arts and had studied with the world’s greatest teachers: Andr6s Segovia, Jesus Silva, Alirio Diaz, Jose Tomás, Celedonio and Pepe Romero. Hired away from El Centro by SMU, Guthrie became the center of the Dallas classical guitar community.
Guthrie’s daily routine is to plant himself in his studio at Owen Arts Center by nine o’clock and practice, uninterrupted, for six to eight hours. He goes all over the country giving hundreds of concerts, clinics, and master classes. Every summer he joins Eliot Fisk, the guitar teacher at Yale, and Oscar Ghiglia, the Italian master, at the Aspen Summer Music Festival. (Each week he and his wife, Mary, herself a guitarist and a member of the SMU faculty, alternate teaching half their 20 students.) His aim is to turn out professional performers, and his graduates find jobs fast.
In his mid-thirties, Guthrie is five to ten years older than most of the area’s other professional guitarists, and though few of them want to emulate his single-mindedness, they revere him as a technically dazzling performer and a non-threatening, gifted teacher. David Woolf, president of the Guitar Society, says of him, "Guthrie has the highest stature around here. He’s been playing longer than anybody else. Some people concertize as much or more, and some have records, but I think he’s among the best anywhere. I’d much rather hear Bob play than Christopher Parkening or Oscar Ghiglia." He laughs at Guthrie’s solitary days in the studio: "Practice? He doesn’t need to practice."
Guitar players in Dallas are a gregarious bunch, and their equivalent of the West Virginia banjo-picker’s front porch is Frets and Strings, a hole-in-the-wall store on Lovers Lane. In the old days (the early Seventies, that is), Frets and Strings catered mostly to classical guitar players (under new ownership the store has broadened its clientele). Co-owners Bill Wynn and Bill Kingsley encouraged informal meetings, signed up new students, and rented out studios to teachers. Kings-ley was known as a fine guitar maker; Guthrie played one of his instruments for years and still doesn’t trust anyone else for repairs.
Formed from the handful meeting informally at Frets and Strings, the Dallas Society for the Classical Guitar initially sponsored a few concerts every year, brought guitarists together in somebody’s living room on Sunday afternoons to play duets or trios, and tried desperately to balance its books. Since David Woolf’s arrival from Atlanta two years ago, however, the Society has grown from a club of 20 or 30 enthusiasts to a substantial arts organization of more than 400 members.
Two years ago the group incorporated and last year it became tax-exempt, a move that netted $20,000-$25,000 in contributions for which it was previously ineligible. This year the Society is sending out its first mailer, and rather than simply selling memberships and throwing a series of concerts in free, Woolf is now going after straight subscriptions. He hopes to add 300 to 400 new names by the end of the summer so that by the end of 1980 he’ll have a list of 1500 to 2000. By that time the Society will have joined the Combined Arts Mailing List, the 90,000-name computerized list (the only such device anywhere) of such established Dallas arts institutions as KERA, Theatre Three, and the Symphony.
Woolf was encouraged to try selling subscriptions because last year’s recital series won an astonishingly large turnout: Four hundred people who were not Society members came to the Oscar Ghiglia concert. In this year’s series the performers will be Liona Boyd, a Canadian artist; the Greek duo Evangelos and Liza; Yale’s Eliot Fisk; and, for the first time in four years, Jose Tomás, whom the Society is sponsoring on a nationwide tour. In addition, subscribers get first crack at tickets to Andrés Segovia’s concert next February, his first in Dallas in 16 years.
Besides sponsoring concerts, the Society has compiled a list of 76 guitarists good enough to perform at restaurants, parties, and such. The Dallas society is also the only one in the country to send guitarists into local schools. Woolf has secured a National Endowment for the Arts grant and started a successful pilot program in kindergarten through sixth grade classes. After about 50 performances, the student response, which the society has tried to measure through follow-up questionnaires, has been nearly unanimously favorable.
The classical guitar has flourished in Dallas along many different paths: a dozen or so top-notch professionals, including three or four major artists; 50 guitar majors at local colleges and universities; several hundred amateurs taking lessons for pleasure; well-attended recitals sponsored by a strong guitar society. Dallas guitarists who perform in other cities know they’re lucky. They all catalogue tales of poor promotion and thus small turnouts, of fighting between factions, and of provincialism. Carlo Pez-zimenti recalls that after one recital of the guitar society in Chicago the president asked him his opinion of another guitarist they were thinking of inviting. "I went on at length about his virtues, but the man interrupted, ’But what we want to know is does he play a lot of wrong notes?’ " Pez-zimenti says Segovia once told him to avoid playing before guitar societies because "those people are always waiting for you to make a mistake." Bob Guthrie once played a recital at the guitar society in St. Louis, but several weeks after he got home they wrote and asked him for his fee back; the budget had been miscalculated and they’d come up short. Others report that elsewhere the guitar scene is usually fragmented, with teachers discouraging their students from hearing recitals by rivals.
Bob Guthrie, Carlo Pezzimenti, and Ric Madriguera played three of the best concerts here this past season. Guthrie’s performance was diamond-sharp, full of vivid variations in tone quality that reminded me of the possibilities of an organ (the forest of silver pipes above him in Caruth seemed apt). I’d never seen an audience so attentive. No matter how hard or fast the piece, Guthrie’s playing made you feel he was coasting; he had technique to burn. His Handel was dance-able, his Sor "Introduction" witty and full of self-parody, his Villa-Lobos lyrical.
Two weeks later Pezzimenti played the same hall. His record had been out two months, had gotten airtime on WRR, and been favorably reviewed by John Ardoin in the News. All that and the posters up all over town brought him a good crowd. It got a bit thick in the program notes: "In 1976, Carlo left SMU and began the deep personal search within himself for the things in music which no teacher but one’s self can touch upon." But Pezzi-menti’s playing needed no hype. He played a romantic interpretation of two etudes by Fernando Sor, his rubato drawing each phrase out. Debussy’s "Hom-mage àPierre Louys" (misspelled Pier on the program) was a showpiece of precise technique and ravishing overtones in his hands. In the Torroba "Suite" the audience applauded eagerly between movements: These were friends and Pezzimenti looked grateful. But in "Madronos" the phrasing was clipped and unnatural. Pez-zimenti played two of the Villa-Lobos Etudes Guthrie had performed, and was equal to them.
Although I missed Ric Madriguera’sconcert at Thanks-Giving Square, heplayed the bulk of it for me at our interview. He warmed up with a rocking"Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring" andfollowed with a soaring Bach fugue. Hethen played a more contemporary work,John Duarte’s lively "English Suite." Hequoted me a bit of advice he’d once gotten from Segovia. The old man had toldhim, "You’re playing that piece very well.But when you’re playing you have to convince people." That’s what these Dallasguitarists are doing.