Goldfingers

Why the classical world is sending love letters to Dallas guitarist Carlo Pezzimenti

Pezzimenti yearns for a world where such music and aesthetics are taught along with algebra and biology, but until that happens, he is a one-man music academy at his shows. Some aficionados regard an address by a musician to the audience as vulgar, but Carlo believes that--if his performance succeeds--he will melt icy formality. So he chats onstage about the composers he loves to people who've never heard the names de Falla or Ponce. By the time they leave the auditorium, many wonder why they've never heard such lovely, haunting--and yes, accessible--compositions before.

That last adjective doesn't apply to widespread perceptions of 20th-century compositions, says Anthony McSpadden, the nighttime personality for WRR-FM, Dallas' only classical station.

"Melody is absent from a lot of stuff written this century," McSpadden notes. "I know we can't afford to play too much that was written 10 or 15 years ago, just because we have to maintain a bottom line--ratings, profits, etc. Aaron Copland finally got the message that music was supposed to be enjoyed, but it took a while. When he was 25, a conductor who premiered one of his more avant-garde efforts turned around when the piece was finished and said to the audience, 'Wasn't that great? Within two years, he [Copland] will be ready to commit murder.'"

Yet it's not just the arrhythmic, atonal, cacophonous experimentalism of some recent compositions that alienates people. There is an apprehensive quality to even the most beautiful and universal of 20th-century music that makes people uncomfortable. This lingering sense is rooted in the conventions of modern composition.

"Music written in this century is filled with what instrumentalists call the 'tritone,' or augmented 4th," Carlo Pezzimenti explains. "It's going from C to F sharp. Well, the tritone has been called el diablo en musica [the devil in music]. The sound is unresolved, angst-filled; it leaves you hanging. This is not the safe quality many people associate with classical music."

Put any of the 10 albums he's released on North Texas-based labels in your stereo, and you'll hear anything but the formalistic tweaking that characterizes a Philip Glass or John Cage piece. You also won't hear very much of a flamenco influence in these Spanish composers; Pezzimenti characterizes that much-touted folk style as "a lot of fun, but not the highest musical art Spain has produced." Consequently, there's a refreshing absence of pecks, trills, and flourishes in the music Pezzimenti charms out of his instrument. The pieces he performs are steeped in a lyrical pursuit of sublime emotion that bypasses both peasant and patrician traditions. His gentle articulation of a composition resurrects words that have long since grown feeble through critical overuse--"color," "texture," "sympathy." When you talk about Carlo's music, you are inevitably drawn away from musical descriptions and into the realm of experience. If the yearning, unresolved, tremulous grace of Pezzimenti's performances can be attributed to "the devil in the music," then among classical artists, Carlo is the devil's cabana boy.

WRR's Anthony McSpadden counts himself a friend and champion of Pezzimenti; he wrote the liner notes for Pezzimenti's latest CD, Espana, which was played on a guitar once owned by Andres Segovia. "Carlo is one of the most enormously sensitive artists I've ever had the pleasure of listening to," McSpadden says. "He's not satisfied until he gets inside the skin of the composers. I've seen a room full of obnoxious kids fall into complete silence when he starts playing his guitar."

It's not surprising that when Pezzimenti discusses his own musical development, he constantly returns to Andres Segovia, arguably the single most influential guitarist of the 20th century. Shortly after he received his degree from Peruggia's Morlachhi Conservatory, Pezzimenti studied under Segovia in Santiago de Compostela, Spain, as a teenager during summers in the early '70s, returning to his mentor annually for private guidance between 1980 and 1985. Pezzimenti came to Dallas in 1974 to study at SMU, where he met his wife, Anita, a history instructor at Ursuline, a private Catholic school in the area.

Pezzimenti holds his mentor in high regard. "He was one of only three truly great classical performers of the 20th century--the other two were Arthur Rubinstein and the conductor Carlo Maria Giulini." He acquired not only a love of Spanish composition from the master, but also a hell-or-high-water devotion. Segovia, who died in 1987, encountered fierce opposition from both his father and his instructors at the Granada Institute of Music when they learned that he wanted to explore the rarefied past of what was then widely denigrated as a gypsy instrument. The elder Segovia reportedly even broke a couple of his son's guitars in disgust. When no one wanted to take his beloved instrument seriously, Andres decided to singlehandedly change the world's perception of it.

Carlo's mission is also ambitious, and problematic. He knows he's got a better shot at a major-label recording contract and bigger international concert halls if he's out there playing guitar transcriptions of Mozart. His repertoire is exclusive within an exclusive world. Peruse an overview of imminent 1997 classical releases in January's issue of Gramophone, the 73-year-old monthly bible for American classical fans, and you can see a timid minority of new recordings from 27 major and minor international labels composed in the last hundred years.

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