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One of Music's Finest Still Finds Time to Fish


When guitarist Christopher Parkening arrives to play at the San Buenaventura Mission on Friday night, as the key concert of the Ventura Chamber Music Festival, it will herald the arrival of a guitar legend whose down-to-earth personality and familiar face make him seem like a neighbor. Still boyishly handsome six months shy of his 50th birthday, Parkening has had a high-profile presence in the music world over the past quarter century. By now, he seems like a part of the landscape.

But there was a time when Parkening pulled away from the music world. In the late '70s, he loaded up the truck, turned off his all-consuming career and moved to a ranch in Montana--at 30.

"It was really meant to be a retirement," the affable Parkening said in a phone interview from Duluth, Minn., before a concert there last week. "My father had retired at the age of 47, so I thought 30 would be a good age. I had been playing concerts all over the world, was teaching full time as the head of the guitar department at USC and recording for EMI/Angel.

"I reached a burnout point," he said. "I was tired of the airplanes and the hotel rooms and the monotony of one concert after the next. I had always loved the outdoors, and particularly fly fishing for trout. So I found a beautiful ranch with a trout stream in the southwest part of Montana, and surprised everyone by just moving up there."

Four years later, Parkening returned to his music life. His motivation was religion as much as his career. He had become a Christian and, he said, his "priorities changed. I had especially loved the music of Bach growing up, but even more so when I read what he said about music, that 'the aim and final reason of all music should be none else but the glory of God.'

"I thought if Bach could use his great talent for that purpose, that would be the least I could do. I called my manager and record company up and said, 'I'd like to start playing again, but this time for a different purpose.' " By general consensus, Parkening is considered America's reigning classical guitar virtuoso, carrying the torch of his mentor, the late Andres Segovia.

Segovia, Parkening said, "single-handedly brought the guitar into a position of being a major concert classical instrument. He was my big inspiration growing up."

Parkening was 12 years old when he met Segovia at a concert in Los Angeles, where Parkening was born and lived most of his life. That encounter was only a year after the youngster began playing guitar. At 14, Parkening's precocious abilities led to his becoming a prize student of Segovia's.

"When you consider all the styles in which the guitar is played, it's probably the most popular instrument in the world," he said. "Therefore, it's a great vehicle by which we can bring the beauty of classical music to the younger generation, because they identify with the instrument. If I went to a classical pianist's concert, I saw a pretty standard classical audience. If I went to Segovia's concerts, I would see the rock and rollers, the jazz players, everybody. I really think the guitar has the capacity of doing that.

"I sent Segovia a recording of Bach that I did in 1972. He sent me a nice letter back, in which he wrote a description of what the guitar meant to him, saying that 'the beauty of the guitar resides in its soft and persuasive voice and its poetry cannot be equaled by any other instrument.' It is a poetic instrument and is capable of so many different colors."

In Ventura, Parkening will perform a variety of solo guitar pieces as well as works with the Colorado String Quartet, including the "Capriol Suite" by Peter Warlock, an orchestral version of which appeared on Parkening's album of mostly Vivaldi from 1994. This arrangement, for guitar and string quartet, was done by Patrick Russ, who will hear it performed for the first time in Ventura. "I hope he likes it," Parkening said with a laugh.

Apart from classic guitar music, by Albeniz and Villa-Lobos, Parkening will play Andrew York's "Jubilation"--which he recorded on the recent Sony album "Angel's Song," his second project in collaboration with Kathleen Battle. He'll also perform "Koyumbaba," by Italian guitarist Carlos Domeniconi.

With concerts, recordings and teaching master classes (every summer at Montana State University, where he also squeezes in fly-fishing), Parkening's schedule is as hectic as one would expect of one of the best-known guitar performers. But he's keen on the importance of balance.

"That's really important, to be able to work hard and also take some time off, to recharge your batteries, as it were. I've always tried, too, to pass along something that I learned in childhood--to pursue a commitment to personal excellence and to let the success fall where it may. That requires hard work and discipline, which my father encouraged in me."


Christopher Parkening performs with the Colorado String Quartet, Fri. at 8 p.m. at the San Buenaventura Mission, 211 E. Main St. The show is sold out.

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