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

Patricia Kratzer, executive director of the Dallas Classic Guitar Society, says, "If we were to accidentally book three guitarists in a row who played only 20th-century compositions, you better believe we'd hear about it. Because of that, guitarists must rely heavily on transcriptions [translated music not originally written for the guitar], since most of the canon for this instrument was written in the 19th and 20th centuries.

"Still, I think classical guitar fans are different than other classical music fans. They tend to follow the interpreters and not the composers, to trust whatever their favorite players select. People buy tickets because Pepe Romero shows up, not because he's specifically going to perform this or that composer."

The market may be small for the music he performs, but Pezzimenti continues to earn acclaim from far and wide. While I'm working on this story, he calls me to report excitedly that LaBella, the venerable nylon and steel string manufacturer, has asked him to represent the company at an international festival in Montreal this April.

Of popular recognition, Pezzimenti says: "In the best of all possible worlds, the performer would be anonymous, virtually invisible, and these composers would be the ones revered. I look at someone like Pavarotti and think, he stopped being an artist when he started being a celebrity. This man doesn't write the beautiful music he sings, but he's treated like he does."

Carlo shares with Segovia a sardonic suspicion of public adulation. When John Lennon described the classical virtuoso as "the father of us all" in the late '60s, Segovia sniffed about The Beatles: "They're not even my illegitimate children."

All this shouldn't imply that Carlo has been a purist since he was old enough to request that his parents play a particular piece on the phonograph. He vividly recalls attending a Jimi Hendrix concert when he was a teenager and being awed by what he heard, although he thinks a lot of people there were more turned on by standing in the crowd at a Jimi Hendrix concert--and by the chemical accoutrements that often accompanied that event--than by Hendrix's thundershower of brilliantly melded notes. In late 1987, he was waiting at a Spanish airport when none other than B.B. King strolled by with his entourage. Pezzimenti reeled the bluesman in with compliments and then performed a piece for King and a gathering crowd right there in the terminal.

What bothers him is the the reduction of music during the manufacture of celebrity myth. The equation in Carlo's mind is simple: Celebrities entertain, artists make art. "Entertainment engages the senses, but stops there," he declares. "Art passes through the senses and changes you inside. It makes you feel alive, makes you aware of the nature of life itself." He rushes to add that he enjoys being entertained as much as the next Joe or Jane, but he worries that too many people have stopped demanding a higher purpose from the arts. He doesn't blame this solely on a public education system that virtually ignores abstract, nonverbal expressions such as music; nor on an American public that favors personality over expression. Carlo also implicates a type of fellow musician he refers to as "The Guitar Player," a rather smug, tight-assed character who is interested only in the accuracy of the sounds he or she makes, not how they will affect an audience.

"It's the difference between playing notes and shaping them," Carlo insists. "I can teach you to stare at a paper full of black dots and finger each one accurately. What I can't teach you--although hopefully I can help you develop it--is to find the intentions of the composer, the larger direction where he or she wants you to take the audience. Some performers don't care about that, because it's essentially a non-musical issue...or at least, an issue that transcends the music."

Carlo worries that too many music instructors place primary importance on the physical production of the notes, and shortchange the opportunity for eloquence that exists between them. Students become enslaved by the composers, not freed by them.

"The thing I notice most in these kids is, the fear of failure is worse than the fear of death," Carlo muses. "And believe me, I understand that fear; right before I walk on stage, I'd rather tackle a lion than give a performance. But you're gonna have to stumble, fall on your face even, before you learn to leap with this music. OK, you get up every morning and practice the scales--I do that every day--but to not let myself risk making a mistake playing these compositions would be the biggest mistake of all."

Once he attended a party with an associate who planned to study with an individual he refers to as "a famous note-player." The note-player was present, and delivered what Carlo describes as a technically perfect but soulless performance.

"Afterward, when this man was talking to some of us, he said: 'On the guitar, you can't play legato.' Legato is a horizontal connected melody; it's the opposite of staccato. Well, it's very difficult, and it takes a lot of effort, but you can play legato on the guitar, although every note won't be individually honored. I simply told him: 'In art, we deal with illusion.'"

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