Though Technically Retired from Performing, Christopher Parkening Continues to Shape the Classical-Guitar World
by Mark Small
Christopher Parkening catapulted to prominence in the late 1960s and became an icon to countless American guitarists across the stylistic spectrum. I vividly recall my impression upon first hearing the Parkening Plays Bach album in 1972. Although I was not playing classical guitar yet, I was immediately struck by Parkening’s absolute control over the formidable technical elements of the music and the emotional drama and passion he seemed to pour into every note. The disc included stellar transcriptions of lyrical pieces such as “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring,” “Sheep May Safely Graze,” and “Sleepers, Awake,” juxtaposed with dazzling selections like the last movement of Bach’s Prelude, Fugue, and Allegro BWV 998 taken at warp speed. I, like many others, found Bach’s music deeply affecting in Parkening’s hands. His subsequent albums revealed that it didn’t matter what he played—Handel, Weiss, Ravel, Satie, Albéniz, Ponce, Lauro—the recordings were all consistently alluring.
Growing up in Los Angeles, Parkening began playing guitar at 11. On the advice of his uncle, studio guitarist Jack Marshall, his parents bought him a classical guitar and recordings by Segovia. He started taking lessons with Celedonio Romero. But it was Duke Parkening, formerly a professional clarinetist, who pushed his son the hardest toward musical excellence. He woke young Christopher at 5am daily to practice before school and coached him rigorously on perfecting his pieces. Parkening started playing local concerts, and by 1964 (at 16), he was chosen to participate in his first master class with Segovia. (The two would remain close friends for the rest of Segovia’s life.) By 1968, Parkening had signed with Capitol Records and professional management, and began touring.
His career was blowing up during the 1970s, with critics worldwide praising his albums, concerts, and TV appearances, some hailing him as “America’s first important classical guitarist.” Capitol’s publicists celebrated his bona fides as a protégé of Segovia, linking Parkening with top performers with a European pedigree. The label also began producing album covers picturing Parkening staring serenely into the camera, wearing suede jackets and turtlenecks rather than a tuxedo. The blond-haired Californian—also an outdoorsman and champion fly fisherman—projected a different image than other classical guitarists. He represented a cool, new breed of virtuoso, respected around the world by people of his own generation as well as the established classical crowd.
How surprising it was to read in his 2006 autobiography, Grace Like a River, that during those heady years, as many of the guitarists he’d inspired practiced hard dreaming of a career like his, Parkening wasn’t enjoying his work. His thoughts centered on saving enough money to retire from the business by age 30. He wanted out while many of his acolytes were seeking a way in!
Parkening’s book reveals that he found the relentless travel and pressure to perform with peak accuracy every night a grind and a lonely existence. He writes of losing it during a European tour: In an act of deliberate self-sabotage, he filed his right-hand nails so short that his remaining concert dates were a musical disaster.
But he soldiered on.
By 1977, however, Parkening had released the six albums he had contracted to make for Capitol. He called his longtime record producer, Patti Laursen, and manager, Sam Niefeld, thanked them for their work, and told them he was ending his career at what appeared to be its apex. That summer, Parkening and his wife headed to Montana for the much-anticipated, peaceful retirement. He spent his days trout fishing and working around his ranch and did limited teaching at Montana State University in Bozeman. By 1979, however, he found himself bored and spiritually empty.
Parkening began reexamining his priorities and pondering life’s big questions. He listened to taped sermons by California preacher John MacArthur and became a dedicated Christian. His autobiography states, “I wanted to play the guitar again, but this time for a different purpose: to honor and glorify the Lord.”
The Parkenings moved back to California, and he picked up his career again, signing new contracts with both Capitol/EMI and his manager. He still had much to offer the world through his artistry and hit new highs upon his return. His first recordings explored spiritual themes. Simple Gifts (1982) featured stunning transcriptions of sacred classical pieces, as well as spirituals and hymns. On A Bach Celebration (1985), Parkening appears as soloist with orchestra on selections from the cantatas of J.S. Bach.
Collaborations with Christian vocalists Kathleen Battle and Jubilant Sykes, and with fellow guitarist David Brandon, resulted in critically acclaimed albums and concerts. A performance with Battle on a Grammy Awards broadcast and a solo recital at the Reagan White House were among Parkening’s many new high-water marks. He also dove into the concerto repertoire with top orchestras, recording works by Joaquín Rodrigo, Antonio Vivaldi, William Walton, and Peter Warlock, as well as a new concerto that film composer Elmer Bernstein penned for him.
Since the early days of his career, Parkening has published as much of his repertoire as possible. He also penned a two-volume guitar method. Two decades after his return to recording and touring, Parkening delved seriously into educational pursuits, becoming the chair of classical guitar at Pepperdine University in Malibu, California, in 2002. In 2006, he established the prestigious Parkening International Guitar Competition, held at Pepperdine every three years. It boasts the largest cash purse of any classical guitar competition.
In 2012, Parkening announced that he was ending his performing career after decades on the front lines. These days he is focused on his work at Pepperdine and family life with his wife, Theresa, and their son Luke. Parkening’s albums, publications, and performances accomplished much in drawing new fans and practitioners to the classical guitar. Many whom he inspired are today concert performers and educators. Countless YouTube videos feature young and older guitarists (including top performers) playing chestnuts from Parkening’s repertoire. His legacy continues.
Parkening recently took time to field questions about his storied career.
Your early records, especially Parkening Plays Bach, attracted nonclassical listeners without your reaching for them through crossover music or by collaborating with pop musicians. What was your impression of this phenomenon?
I always loved the music of Bach growing up, but even more so when I read what he said about music. He said, “The aim and final reason of all music is none else but the glory of God.” Bach’s music reaches far beyond the sacred world—it has a universal appeal across all generations and style preferences. The idea for Parkening Plays Bach came about through my record producer at the time, Patti Laursen, who loved the music of Bach herself. The recording was a labor of love and its success and popularity came as a pleasant surprise.
There was a shift in cover art after your first two albums, where you wore a tux, to photos in which you dressed casually. Do you feel this change in image contributed to a wider audience relating to you at that point?
I remember when I was in my 20s, my manager at the time, Sam Niefeld, suggested that since I was playing at many universities across America, I dress more casually; hence the black turtleneck. When Sam retired and Andrew Grossman became my manager, he suggested that since I was then in my 30s, I should dress more like the classical musicians of the day and wear tails for solo and orchestral performances. However, I always took the advice of the artistic director at EMI for the cover art.
Your transcriptions and arrangements and those of several others created a distinctive repertoire that listeners could readily identify as yours. Can you talk about your collaborative work with various arrangers?
I was very blessed in my 20s to have Jack Marshall—a skilled composer/arranger—as my cousin. When I thought a piece would fit the guitar, I would give the music to Jack, and within a day or two, it was finished. He knew the guitar well through his work as staff guitarist at MGM, and he was used to working at “film-composing speed.” After Jack passed away, I had met Patrick Russ who was not only a fine classical guitarist, but also an excellent arranger/orchestrator. He was friends with Ronald Ravenscroft. So when I recorded my first albums after my “retirement,” Simple Gifts and A Bach Celebration, I collaborated on the arrangements with them.
[Early in my career], I remember telling a friend that I was planning on transcribing “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring” by Bach, and he said he knew of a guy who had already done an arrangement—Rick Foster. I called Rick and he drove up to my house on his motorcycle with the guitar strapped on his back. We shook hands, he got his guitar out of its case and played a nearly flawless performance of “Jesu.” I told him I was making a Bach album, and he told me he was also going to transcribe “Sheep May Safely Graze”—which is one of the most difficult pieces I have ever played on the guitar. I also met Jerry Hyman through a friend when I was chairing the guitar department at the University of Southern California. I went over to his home and he played me “Empress of the Pagodas,” by Maurice Ravel, along with several other impressionist pieces that found their way onto the album Parkening and the Guitar [rereleased as The Artistry of Christopher Parkening].
Did your label allow you to direct the musical concepts for each of your recordings?
In the beginning, they controlled all of the musical concepts of the albums. I was 19 when I signed with Capitol/Angel Records for six albums. They wanted two albums released simultaneously, something they’d never done with a new artist. I presented them with possible repertoire to record, and they came up with the titles, In the Classic Style and In the Spanish Style.
Later on, however, I preferred to choose the repertoire, and they allowed me to.
Much of your repertoire remains popular with players of two or more generations. Does it follow that your editions continue to sell?
Yes, I have always felt that it is important for classical guitarists to publish arrangements so that the music can continue to be played. I regularly receive emails from guitarists from all over the world who want to learn a particular piece. I have my secretary, Sharon, direct them to the publisher’s website [halleonard.com] where they are available.
The sound of your Ramirez guitars in concert and on record is a very distinctive component of your musical voice. Was it Segovia’s influence or your ear that drew you to Ramirez instruments?
Both! I loved all the different tonal colors and contrasts that I heard coming from the Maestro’s guitars, and in the late 1960s I had the wonderful opportunity, through Sherry-Brener in Chicago, to pick a guitar from about 500 instruments, all made with Brazilian Rosewood backs and sides, and most with cedar tops. It’s my experience that a truly great instrument may only occur once in several hundred guitars. I was fortunate to have had that choice back then.
I’ve had many guitars presented to me on tour, and several beautiful instruments made for me, but those luthiers are competing against 500 instruments. I would have been open to playing another guitar if I found a better one. It wasn’t really loyalty to Segovia that kept me playing Ramirez guitars. I’ve never found an instrument that was as musically expressive as the one I picked out.
I am very honored that the “Bach guitar” as we called it—a 1967 MT Ramirez used on many of my recordings, including Parkening Plays Bach—is on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York next to Segovia’s Manuel Ramirez and one of his famous Hauser guitars.
Your later albums focused on orchestral music. Your recordings of the Bernstein concerto, cameo appearance on composer John Williams’s Stepmom soundtrack, and adaptations of the Capriol Suite and Walton Bagatelles were departures from the established guitar concerto repertoire.
Like others, I have always felt the responsibility to increase the repertoire for our beautiful instrument. I still remember the day that Patrick Russ told me there was a beautiful suite called the Capriol that he thought would transcribe well for guitar and strings. We went on to record it, along with three Vivaldi concertos and a solo suite with music by Praetorius for the Parkening Plays Vivaldi, Warlock and Praetorius album.
As you know, William Walton originally wrote Five Bagatelles for Julian Bream. Walton loved the piece so much that he made an orchestral version of it. His widow, Lady Walton, commissioned the meshing of the two versions together, which Patrick Russ did for me. I recorded it at the same time I did the two Rodrigo concertos with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra in London.
Regarding Elmer Bernstein, I met him when I was 15 years old and he, as president of the Young Musicians Foundation, introduced me on The Tonight Show. Many years later I asked him about writing a concerto for guitar, but he said he was just too busy with his film music. Finally, with my persistence, he agreed to it, and I recorded the piece with the London Symphony at Abbey Road Studios with the composer conducting, for the album Parkening, Bernstein, Concerto for Guitar.
Since your retirement from touring three years ago, do you still practice regularly or perform for special events?
When I was very kindly presented the Guitar Foundation of America’s Artistic Achievement Award in 2012, I decided that it was the time and place to share what for me was the rather difficult announcement that after nearly five decades as a concert artist, the time had come for me to step away from the concert stage. Over the past few years, I have had some physical issues resulting in several back surgeries. At this point in my life, I would like to focus more on my family and on my commitment to teaching and mentoring guitar students at Pepperdine University, and in master classes, sharing the insights and experiences—musical and personal—with young artists.
In chairing Pepperdine’s guitar department, it’s often necessary for me to demonstrate certain sections of a piece for my students, which requires some practice. I also have speaking engagements and give master classes around the country and still perform for a very few special events.
Parkening in a collaboration with guitarist David Brandon
How many students do you personally mentor at Pepperdine?
I currently have ten students and two wonderful adjunct professors, Anastasios Comanescu and Dr. Jonathan Roth. In addition to my private lessons, I teach several classes. I also give at least one public master class each semester and I take a few guitarists by audition from outside Pepperdine for those classes. On occasion, I present lectures around the country, and in conjunction, will give a master class.
What was your motivation in founding of the Parkening International Guitar Competition?
In the program for the May 2015 competition, I said, “It had long been my vision for there to be a world-class guitar competition equal to the great piano and violin competitions. The Parkening International Guitar Competition will champion and reward long-standing traditions of musical excellence.
Many of the world’s finest young guitarists ages 30 and younger from over 20 nations will be competing for over $65,000 in cash prizes—the largest of any guitar competition in the world.” One interesting aspect of this year’s competition is that one of the required pieces for the semifinal is “Rounds” by film composer John Williams.
On a personal note, I am very grateful to the leadership of Pepperdine University, who value the pursuit of art and the skill and discipline necessary to perfect this art. Every aspect of the guitar competition is a credit to their commitment to excellence.
What are your hopes for the winners of this competition?
The winner of this year’s competition will receive the $30,000 Jack Marshall Gold Medal Prize. I hope the competition will help jump-start the careers of some brilliant young guitarists.
‘I firmly believe that no one will ever do for the guitar what Andrés Segovia did for his beloved instrument.’
With the passing of Segovia, your retirement and that of Bream, and Williams cutting back his schedule, it feels like the end of the classical-guitar icon era. Do you think the guitar will find new champions with the ability and charisma to fill big concert halls as you four did?
I firmly believe that no one will ever do for the guitar what Andrés Segovia did for his beloved instrument. He came along at a time—and was brilliant enough—to be able to single-handedly elevate the guitar to the status of a classical concert instrument and move millions with his poetic, lyrical phrasing, beautiful sound and romantic musical spirit. I remember when Segovia would fill the Los Angeles Music Center—well over 3,000 seats—for three consecutive concerts. I’ve never seen that done since, and probably never will again. Do I think it’s possible? Maybe.
In recent years there seems to have been a growing trend away from this legacy of beauty, warmth and lyricism in musical performance, toward a colder, more mechanistic style of playing. In some cases, the guitar has been reduced to a “miniature keyboard” instrument rather than the beautiful, expressive and poetic instrument that it really is. In dedicating myself to working with and training future generations of guitarists at Pepperdine, my goal is to emphasize the importance of beauty, warmth, and lyricism in musical performance.
I certainly believe we will see new guitarists who will have wonderful careers.
This article was originally published in the Summer 2015 issue of Classical Guitar magazine.