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Few Strings to the Past : Music: Guitarist John Williams doesn't fret about breaking with Segovia's classical teachings.

March 23, 1994|MARK SWED | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

NEW YORK — Classical guitarists are different from other musicians.

Theirs is the most familiar instrument in all music, the one instrument with which nearly every kid these days, whatever his or her background, comes into physical contact, and will actually hold and pluck. Given the saturation of Western popular music, which is now inescapable even in the most remote corners of the planet, the guitar's sound has, moreover, become the dominant character of the global soundtrack.

Yet classical musicians form the smallest imaginable subset of guitarists. Their solo repertoire is limited and apart from the standard classical tradition. Their own recent tradition, instead, is wrapped up in Segovia, who single-handedly made the guitar respectable as a classical instrument, but around whom a pretentious and worshipful aura of exclusivity developed.

Or at least it had until John Williams came along. Williams will play two recitals at Ambassador Auditorium in Pasadena, today and Thursday.

Williams has had one of the more remarkable modern careers in music. Segovia's most-gifted protege, he came into international prominence in the early 1960s while still a teen-ager, with what seemed like the most flawless technique ever heard on the instrument and an exquisite tone. He played Bach with an unprecedented clarity; he played Spanish music with dazzling panache.

But Williams, who was born in Australia in 1941 and moved to London at age 10, also rejected the Segovia model and embraced the larger guitar world along with the larger musical one. Not only did he expand the classical repertoire, transcribing pieces and playing new music, he played jazz and pop, experimenting with the electric guitar. He made an album in the early '70s with singer Cleo Laine; he formed a pop group called Sky; he jammed with the likes of Paul McCartney. He stopped wearing formal clothes in his classical recitals.

All of this made Segovia furious, Williams recalls. The guitarist, in New York for three recitals at the 92nd Street Y before coming to Los Angeles, says he has very complex feelings about Segovia, both as a historical figure and a teacher.

"He was a very great musician and true to what he believed, but looking back, I think a lot of the artificiality in his personality, and the artificiality in his musical personality as well, were limiting factors.

"In some ways, he held the development of the guitar back, which is ironic because he also created that development. He just went on too long, propagating his way of playing when times were changing."

Yet Williams, by going about his career in his own way, has proven Segovia's true successor. Like Segovia, he has broadened the range of the instrument greatly, as can be seen in his two Ambassador programs, one devoted to Baroque and Spanish music (much of it in Williams' own transcriptions) and the other to readily accessible contemporary music (much of it written for Williams).

Unlike Segovia, however, Williams, who is proud of his life-long involvement in liberal causes (he rails against the hotel laundry for putting cardboard in shirt collars, wasting trees like that), found that it was through social causes that he has often expanded his own musical horizons. It was, for instance, performing at benefit concerts for the African National Congress in the early 1970s that he met Cleo Laine.

And if Williams has, like Segovia, also enlarged the popular appeal of the instrument, again he has done so in a manner both like and most unlike his mentor. Following in Segovia's footsteps, Williams is a musician faithful to his age. But he adamantly rejects Segovia's approach, which created a generation of copy-cat players obsessed with fingerings and positions and other people's editions. As a result, he says, "guitarists are rotten sight readers and rotten at playing in ensembles. They can't read and they don't listen."

Thus, Williams will not teach solo playing. "I won't sit in front of them and say you should play this piece this way. Jazz players don't teach jazz like that." Instead, Williams feels that the only way to rectify this imbalance is by having students play in guitar ensembles, so that the students learn by interacting with other musicians.

He notes, moreover, just how "wonderfully well" something like a Brahms string sextet can sound on six guitars, an example of which is included in a film profile of Williams that accompanies an alluring new Sony video of Williams performing at the Royal Alcazar Palace in Seville.

Still, for all his varied participation in the contemporary music scene, it is in the traditional solo guitar recital where Williams best captures the essence of the guitar. That essence, Williams says, picking up from an idea he got from Julian Bream, is the exploration of the guitar's most special quality, its ability to shape the dying away of a sound into silence.

"It's a totally magical thing, as you're drawn into the sound as it disappears," he explains, his voice becoming almost transfixed. No other instrument produces the effect as thoroughly as the guitar, and it can help an audience feel especially intimate to the music. It is something that Williams says is particularly well-exploited in the newer pieces and what makes the contemporary program so appealing to him, and, often to their surprise, to audiences as well.

This quality of the guitar may be one of the principal reasons why guitarists are different. "I think it is because they have a response to that sound," Williams postulates. "And I think it is perhaps why I like guitarists as ordinary people as well."

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