NEW YORK — The odds are that no modern classical instrumentalist has had more of a revolutionary impact on his art than Andres Segovia, who begins teaching a master class today at USC at the ripe age of 93.
It's hard to think where the classical guitar would be right now without Segovia. He was never the most technically precise of players, and although he prides himself on having commissioned a number of works from composers who otherwise hadn't considered writing for the guitar, he seems most at rest in the garden of the classical tradition.
To see him play is almost as affecting as it is to hear him. It's a bit startling to witness, in our mechanized, multifarious, noisy, depersonalized age, a solitary man walk on to a stage and proceed to spellbind us with a simple-looking--albeit elegant--instrument consisting of six strings stretched over a long neck and a shapely wooden hollow.
Watching him play is like happening into a moonlit bedroom and discovering someone praying, or doting on his sleeping child. He has that look of someone enraptured, and it comes through in his music, through which he creates the illusion of total intimacy with the palpable complications and feelings of an artist in dreamlike flight.
"It is the most beautiful, poetical instrument ever devised by man," he said. "Being polyphonic, it has different, complicated factors. Everything is possible with a guitar."
In his thick Castilian accent he added, "I am glad there is a boom for the guitar in all the world. In Japan, there are 4 million students of both sexes. The guitar is played everywhere in the United States, Europe and South America. Now, it's ahead of the violin and the cello, and the piano."
He's noncommittal over the suggestion that those millions of tributaries may well spring from a single source--Andres Segovia. He measures his success less in numbers than in the knowledge that "from the beginning I tried to rescue the guitar from the folklore, where she was captured. There were great guitarists before me, such as Giuliani, and Sor--Sor was a magnificent composer, not only for the guitar, but for the orchestra and the ballet.
"I try not to be the interpreter of compositions made just by guitarists. That's a narrow world. I have asked many symphonic composers to write for the guitar. At first they refuse. 'I don't know how,' they say. But then they learn. Castelnuovo-Tedesco, for example, came late to the guitar and wrote more than 100 compositions. They are captivated by the guitar. It has poetry, and always a little melancholy."
Segovia raised a hand, index finger close to thumb, to describe how little the melancholy is. His hands are surprisingly big and blunt, with thick, sausage-like fingers--not the nervous, spidery digits you might expect of an aesthete. But it seems he's always been a somewhat unlikely figure, someone so in love with the music of the ages that he willed himself into premature age to conceal a perpetual youthfulness within. (Twice married, he fathered his last child at the age of 78.)
He was never physically imperious, never a patrician, like Vladimir Horowitz. Somehow his pot, his wispy white fringe of hair, and--especially of late--the wader's legs that move like afterthoughts worked against a lofty image. In his younger photos he looked like a stuffy academic, viewing the world through round-rimmed eyeglasses. In his older pictures he resembles a kindly old tinkerer who nightly reaches for the body of a woman (he frequently alludes to the guitar as being female) and touches revelations, secrets of the universe.
Segovia is not without humor. "I like Los Angeles," he said--he last gave a master class at USC in 1981, though he concertizes here annually. "They gave me the key to the city."
"Once, in Cincinnati, the mayor came between the third and fourth part of a performance to give me the key to the city. It was a tiny key. I said, 'With a little key like this, I don't think I can enter the door to the city. It must be a very little door.' "
But today, on a humid, sullen New York afternoon, he was philosophical. Of the upcoming class (which can be audited by as many students as will fit into Bovard Auditorium), he said, "I listen to only 12 students that I want to teach. No more. It's important to distribute time for people.
"Music is like the ocean--the instrument is like a little island on it. All I ask is that they study properly and profoundly. Otherwise they are not real artists. Even still, it's a small centimeter that makes art."
It would not be an overstatement to say that art is sacred to Segovia, who began his guitar studies at the age of 7 and, after a difficult beginning (that is, with a nasty instructor), took it up in earnest when his family moved to Granada.