Goldfingers

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

On a recent rainy Monday night, classical guitarist Carlo Pezzimenti performed for about 40 members of a college class taught by friend and fellow Brookhaven teacher Larry Gordon. Anyone who's seen Pezzimenti perform knows what happened the instant his fingers hit the nylon strings: The Carlo hush fell over listeners as the guitarist and his sometime accompanist, pianist Marta Urrea, strolled through a program of composers most in the audience heard for the first time that night--Villa-Lobos, Brower, and Ponce.

At the end of the performance, during a question-and-answer session, one young woman stood up and said to Carlo, "Do you realize you were making love to that guitar?" then upon learning that Carlo spoke French, she took him a piece of notebook paper after class. On it, she had written several English sentences she wanted him to translate. One of them read something like, "I want to be your wife, your lover, your whore."

"This music affects people in so many different ways, I'm sometimes surprised with the things people tell me," Pezzimenti says with a laugh. "This woman obviously felt it in a very sensual way. She kept asking questions about the relationship between Marta and myself. Marta's husband was sitting in the audience near me. I finally had to point him out and say, 'Ma'am, there's absolutely nothing going on between us, I swear.'"

A friend of this 45-year-old former Andres Segovia disciple, 20th-century Spanish classical advocate, and digital poet tells me that other "Carlo groupies" have had similar reactions to his passionate live shows. Pezzimenti, who holds faculty positions at both Texas Woman's University in Denton and Brookhaven College in Dallas, is probably best-known locally for his free solo concerts in the Dallas Museum of Art, Borders Books & Music, and the Jewish Community Center. But he's also received a pile of love letters from the international classical community. In addition to regular concert appearances across North America and Western Europe since the '70s, Pezzimenti has toured Romania as a featured performer at the invitation of its government in 1995; his recitals were aired on Romanian national television. He's also recorded a concert for broadcast on National Public Radio. Gramophone bounced a national spotlight his way when they reviewed his CD Mosaic as a pick-of-the-month, and he gets reams of glowing newsprint from the international cities he plays.

Off the stage, when Carlo Pezzimenti gets passionate about a subject, he begins to wave his hands in the air. That's not surprising; he's Italian, after all, and being a classical guitarist, he's accustomed to expressing raw emotion with his paws.

We're discussing the various musical moods of the great composers. Rather, Carlo is discussing them and I, a neophyte who's always felt a little intimidated by what Pezzimenti describes as "the vast architecture of classical music," am hurriedly jotting down names and symphony numbers for an informed trip to the all-classical Blockbuster next to Southern Methodist University. When I tell him that a previous intimate who turned me on to Satie and Shostakovich, among others, had been forced to quit his piano studies early because of juvenile arthritis, Pezzimenti's eyes get big, and he glances at his own smooth, long-nailed hands. They suddenly look as ultraprecious as the last two Stradivariuses on the planet.

"Oh Jesus, oh God," he opines, and rests his palms on the wooden table between us. "Poor guy..." He shrugs and looks around, overcome by the contemplation of what is, for him, a particularly fresh hell. "I can't even imagine..."

During several long and intense conversations, Carlo Pezzimenti's fleet and furious gray cells are in high gear. He is often moved to broken sentences and silences, stopped in his conversational tracks by the recognition that something is beautiful, repugnant, terrifying, or humbling. These communication breakdowns in the presence of pure emotion happen whether he's talking about classical music, or popular culture, or politics, although the borders that separate these topics are often blurred: Pezzimenti is given to comparing the non-musical to the musical, and vice versa. In Carlo's world, there is no reason to separate the two.

As a result, he is good-naturedly impatient with fellow artists who forget their role in the larger scheme: "Sometimes when musicians get so caught up in their own craft, the music gets lost," Pezzimenti says with a sigh. "They let the technical aspects bog them down. It's the same with the whole society; we're obsessed with technology, interested in the means rather than the end. When I see a musician doing that, I want to ask them 'But what is the music for?'"

Carlo Pezzimenti's rapturous classical guitar reveals what he calls "the mystery of life, the imponderable," performed in concerts across Dallas, the American continents, and the world, often for audiences whose major reference points are Beethoven and Tchaikovsky. His show is an education for many otherwise seasoned classical listeners, because he specializes in the Spanish greats of this century--not always the most popular bunch with symphony orchestras in major American cities, whose high ticket prices don't engender a sense of adventure or experimentation among their patrons.

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.

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.'"

Pezzimenti plucks another memory from his earliest studies with Segovia, the image of a fellow student executing a pristine but rather dull "Granada" by Albeniz before the master. When the young man had finished, Segovia asked if he'd ever been to Granada. The student replied he had not.

"Go to Granada, find a lovely Spanish girl, look into her eyes, and fall in love," the teacher instructed him. "Then come back and practice Albeniz."

In a sense, Segovia told the young man to find something inside the composition that corresponded with something inside himself. Cowed by its general ignorance of classical music, the American public assumes that knowledge is a kind of required clearance procedure to access the power of the music. Awareness of the pioneers, the historical periods, and the styles certainly facilitates your journey through the dense foliage of your favorite music store's classical section, but it can't create that sacred intimacy between artist and individual. The trick is to find the composers and their consummate interpreters who address parts of you that existed before you discovered the music. A conscientious, nurtured appreciation will, in turn, reveal elements of yourself you hadn't detected before the music.

Artists like Carlo Pezzimenti are the shamans in this ritual, and it's sometimes difficult not to worship the priest who turned you on to the religion in the first place. Cole Porter may have been one of the American stage's preeminent tunesmiths, but as anyone who's listened to his own versions of Porter songs can attest, it takes an Ella Fitzgerald or a Frank Sinatra to highlight the artistry of his tunes. In the same vein, writers like the Brazilian master Heitor Villa-Lobos and the contemporary Cuban composer Leo Brower are reliant on the tender touch and goosebump-raising restraint of a Carlo Pezzimenti.

During our conversations, Carlo and I frequently laughed about how difficult it is to capture the experience of great music with words. And yet, he doesn't think language is necessarily inadequate.

Upon his birth in Ohio, Carlo was raised in a household where both English and Italian were spoken. The latter was especially important, as he spent a considerable amount of his childhood in Italy with a father who tried his hand at everything from winemaking to acting. Multilingual, he finds echoes of musical virtuosity in the poetry of various countries. Indeed, poetry is his second love. Carlo has played alongside poets like James Mardis and former Dallasite Tim Seibles. Two years ago he composed a piece based on a poem his wife wrote which was, in turn, inspired by a Borges poem called "Adam Cast Forth." Not surprisingly, he cites Borges' work and the delicate, subconsciously charged lyrics of another legendary 20th-century Spanish master, Federico Garcia Lorca, as two modern pinnacles of language.

When his burgeoning talents took him to Spain for study, the supple artistry of Spanish composition infected his bloodstream, and he has never recovered. He says he learned the language eagerly because he wanted to wring every sublime cultural nuance from its modern composers. This music is an epiphany to Carlo, and in explanation of his lifelong devotion to it, he offers a lengthy quote from Albert Camus:

"A man's work is nothing but the slow trek to rediscover through the detour of art those two or three great and simple images in whose presence his heart first opened."

"I've tried to bridge that insidious gap between music and the rest of life," Pezzimenti says. "An artist who cares about his message won't let himself get in the way of it. When he's dealing honestly with an audience, he says, 'Let me share this with you.'

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