“Practice! Practice!” smiles Su Meng, straight into the camera. Beside her is a jovial fellow with sparkling eyes, whose face may not be familiar, though he has shaped the classical guitar landscape in very meaningful ways ever since falling for the instrument as a boy.
The YouTube channel of Gerald Garcia could almost be described as avant-garde, with its casual look and unusually candid approach. Through Garcia’s roving smartphone we joke backstage with Craig Ogden and Xuefei Yang, or sidle up to a somewhat startled Stephen Goss over breakfast. We encounter guitarists in various stages of preparedness, captured from Baltimore to Chengdu.
The channel is delightfully typical of this artist, who has appeared in Classical Guitar under numerous guises—cover subject, performer, critiqued composer, and critic himself—throughout a rich, ever-evolving, and evergreen career in music. Garcia was the first guitarist to record for Naxos, for whom he has made more than a dozen albums and also contributed as an arranger. Garcia’s own works and arrangements have been performed by such players as the Eden Stell Guitar Duo, Xuefei Yang, and David Russell, to name just three. As a teacher and classical guitar world fixture, he has guided the hands of and opened many doors for some of today’s most celebrated performers. Just recently, Garcia produced the newest album by innovative guitarist/composer Johannes Möller.
It has been 40 years since Garcia was last on the receiving end of ovations onstage in Beijing; 20 or so since touring with John Williams as a duo across mainland China. Lately, though, the versatile Garcia (he is also a conductor of considerable renown) has found renewed zest for music-making after a debilitating hand injury and ensuing long recovery derailed his playing career for many years. “It’s exciting and fresh again,” explains Garcia. “I’m meeting fantastic players, I’m learning from them as much as they learned from me.”
To hear the full story, I had the pleasure of being invited to The Shed—a party space and temple to the arts that Garcia built at the foot of his wonderfully alive Oxford, England, garden. Garcia’s saga, I learned, is a classic tale of how music connects people.
Garcia was originally transported to England at the age of 12, accompanied by his brother and parents on a ship from Hong Kong. Garcia’s father, a judge, and his mother, a government secretary, intended for their sons to attend the best schools. “They really wanted me and my brother to do anything that we were good at,” says Garcia.
It was on that trip that young Garcia heard his first Spanish guitar, played by a man entertaining his girlfriend by the swimming pool on the ship’s deck. “It was probably something ordinary, but it was very rhythmic, and I thought ‘This is an amazing machine,’” recalls Garcia. “It was just . . . freedom.”
Garcia the guitarist was awakened, and soon found kindred spirits at his Catholic boarding school in Leicestershire. A boy named Alain owned a nylon-string instrument, which Garcia borrowed to learn folk songs. Another student, Peter Nuttall (of The Guitarist’s Way tutor books fame), became a lifelong friend and fellow teacher. “At school, our headmaster was keen to play us music,” says Garcia. “I heard recordings of Segovia and Julian Bream. I loved Bream’s playing of Villa-Lobos, and I thought, ‘This is amazing. How can he do this with just chords?’”
Boarding school proved to be the foundation that Garcia’s parents intended, but it was during Garcia’s subsequent years at New College, Oxford (1968–72), that his future in music was all but decided. Though formally studying chemistry, Garcia was by now a true student of music and the guitar. “I did gigs,” he recalls. “The first one, I think, for the Spanish Society.” This is possibly what brought Garcia to the attention of an older student, now the published philosopher Stanley Godlovitch. The Canadian had studied with French guitar icons Ida Presti and Alexandre Lagoya, and was intent on bringing Garcia up to speed. “Stanley said, ‘We’re going to play duets every week.’ So he brought stacks of duets: Carulli, Giuliani, and Sor. This was how I learned to sight-read.”
The new friends organized a university guitar society, the first in Oxford. “We used to invite people that we’d like to listen to: John Williams, Julian Bream, Paco Peña; people like John James, finger-picking guitarists; folk guitarists like Martin Carthy. We had a secretary whose job it was to find their agents, make them an offer they could refuse: ‘We’re a small society. We’ll get you dinner and pay you a proportion of your normal fee.’”
John Williams, already well-known, was introduced to Garcia by quite unconventional means, but his handling of the situation made all the difference. Remembers Garcia: “John was playing in the Oxford University Union. He was getting ready to go onstage, and suddenly my friends said, ‘Go on, why don’t you go and play for him?’ and pushed me into the room.
“He was very kind. He said ‘Go ahead, I’ve got a few minutes.’ I played some
Villa-Lobos, at the end of which he said, ‘I don’t think you’re going to have to have lessons regularly, but here are a few things, and if you’re in London get in touch.’ I was still studying then. So, that was encouragement in itself.”
After university, Garcia moved for a year to London, where he worked for the Inner London Education Authority (ILEA) as a peripatetic guitar teacher. “I used to go around on the buses and teach people at schools,” says Garcia. “Now and again I’d get a student who wanted to learn, but not much.” Then fate, you might say, played its hand.
“I moved to Notting Hill, and discovered that John Williams was living around the corner. So, I just rang his doorbell, and said, ‘Do you remember me? You said to get in touch.’ And he said, ‘Yeah, come in.’ I’d go for coffee every couple of weeks. There would be amazing people there—Rafael Puyana, the harpsichordist, discussing his latest CD; [British jazz composer] John Dankworth, Julian Bream, Cleo Lane, people like that.”
Events were soon to become even more remarkable for Garcia, confirming that he was on the right path. “I came back to Oxford because another friend, whom I met when I was at Oxford, was a guitar teacher, and he said ‘I’m leaving. Do you want my house and all my students?’ So I said ‘Yes, sure,’ because I wasn’t doing very much in London at the time.”
With Oxford as his base, Garcia occasionally traveled to London, where he took lessons with Gilbert Biberian. “Gilbert connected people and was an ambitious composer,” he says. “His angle came from the world of classical music—pianists and conductors. He worked with contemporary music groups, and I inherited some of this culture.” Garcia was also introduced to Tom Hartman, a student of Emilio Pujol. The connections kept growing, and a pattern was forming. Metaphorical doorbells rang, with more warm invitations to enter.
During this time, Garcia made his debut at prestigious Wigmore Hall. Alongside 12 Études by Villa-Lobos and William Walton’s Five Bagatelles, the program included premieres of Columbine and Monogram by Biberian, and Melody and Tremolo by Ho Wai-On. “I think by knowing John Williams, this encouraged me to do this,” Garcia humbly acknowledges.
“My parents were wondering what on earth I was doing at this time with my degree,” says Garcia, enjoying a laugh. “I used to visit them every year. On one visit I got in touch with the people in Hong Kong responsible for putting on every concert in those days, which was the Hong Kong Urban Council. My parents were getting quite suspicious at this point, because I wasn’t really making a huge amount of money teaching. They turned up, and suddenly there were 2,000 people at this concert. My dad was going around saying, ‘That’s my son!’”
Garcia had a regular gig in Hong Kong for eight years (“It kind of paid for my trip every year to see my parents”) and in this same period toured Taiwan, Australia, Switzerland, Holland, Czech Republic, Poland, the USA, and, most significantly, China. “I went and I did a big concert in Beijing, and I played at the Foreign Language Institute there,” Garcia remembers, “and all through this there was a camera on my hands—somebody wanting to get technique.”
Garcia’s visits to Hong Kong and China produced several long-term partnerships, one of which was with Beijing Central Conservatory professor and mentor to so many great guitarists, Chen Zhi. “I was occasionally on the jury of competitions in Hong Kong,” says Garcia. “Chen Zhi would enter his students in all competitions, everywhere, including Hong Kong, and they usually won. He would introduce me to his newest students, including Xuefei Yang, then 13, Wang Yameng, and Su Meng [also known as the Beijing Duo].”
Garcia’s recording career with Naxos also grew out of his work in Hong Kong. The label’s German-born, Hong Kong–based founder and owner, Klaus Heymann, suggested that Garcia record Chinese music for violin and guitar, the former performed by Heymann’s wife, Takako Nishizaki, for what was then known as Hong Kong Records. “He sent me this music, which I arranged for guitar and violin in different styles, like French style, or Latin American. My record collection was bizarre. I did listen to absolutely everything.” A few years later, Heymann invited Garcia to record Rodrigo’s Concierto de Aranjuez on the newly established Naxos label, and that is how Garcia came to learn about arranging for guitar and orchestra, working alongside Peter Breiner, “a genius in his own right,” Garcia says.
Unfortunately, Garcia believes the self-imposed pressures of being a recording artist with high standards contributed to the onset of a condition known as focal dystonia, which Garcia experienced as a lack of feeling in his right hand. [For lots more on FD, see the Spring 2017 issue of Classical Guitar.] If there is a bright side to this part of the story, it is that Garcia’s hand injury forced him to explore other musical avenues that did not require the same sort of manual dexterity.
Around the time that he became afflicted, the German guitarist Thomas Kirchhoff had invited Garcia to play at his annual symposium in Iserlohn. Realizing that Garcia was no longer comfortable as a soloist, Kirchhoff commissioned a piece for a guitar orchestra. The performance was a success, leading to more compositions in the years that followed.
“Focal dystonia was the main reason I started composing and conducting,” explains Garcia. “Iserlohn was the impetus. I thought, ‘Well, I can do other things.’ So, I wrote a little bit.” The 25 Études Esquisses, a true musical gift to many guitar students, was one such project, commissioned by Alison Bendy, another close friend and fellow teacher. They were recorded by John Holmquist for Naxos, together with Garcia’s Celtic Airs.
Garcia’s conducting work has led to his involvement with a broad spectrum of students, from evening classes with adults to the UK’s National Youth Guitar Ensemble (NYGE), which is now part of Guitar Circus. Among the rising stars to have passed Garcia’s stiff auditions for the NYGE are Alexandra Whittingham, Torrin Williams, Julian Vickers, and Daniel Bovey. And through Garcia, the NYGE has entered into a number of inspiring collaborations.
“We played with Laura Snowden and her duet partner Tom Ellis, and that was great for people in NYGE,” Garcia notes. “Stephen Dodgson, the cellist and composer, wrote us a piece. We had Gordon Dunn, a classical and electric guitarist, for when we performed Steve Reich.”
Garcia’s unique journey has proven time and again how such introductions are invaluable. As rough-cut as Garcia’s social media output may appear, the intention of his videos and blog is to present extraordinarily talented musicians as genuine people. We receive precious insight from Jorge Caballero. A conversation beneath a tree with California luthier Kenny Hill is disarmingly matter-of-fact. His online “Gerald’s Guitar Grab Bag” (geraldgarcia.com) is a lively, fun, and highly informative repository of interviews, videos, and photos—a fantastic resource for fans of classical guitar.
Garcia holds everyone in the same high regard, whether it’s his good friend Sean Shibe being interviewed in The Shed, or, as Garcia describes, “people who’ve got jobs, or they’re retired, really going the extra mile to make music.”
“I like to feel that I do bring people together,” Garcia gently reflects. “If I really examine my motivation, that’s what it’s about. Realize that you are part of a community, not necessarily of guitarists, but of the world.”