High note for Guitar Society Music: Down and nearly out just a few years ago, the Baltimore organization is now presenting some of the world's very best guitarists.

September 03, 1996|By Larry Harris | Larry Harris,SUN STAFF

The Baltimore Classical Guitar Society, an all-volunteer organization that was down to its last set of strings just a few years ago, has a1996-97 concert series that ranks with the best this country can offer.

The five concerts mark a pinnacle for the BCGS, which has gone from having no money at all to being able to showcase the most outstanding performers in the classical field.

Highlighting this season's schedule are Baltimore's own Manuel Barrueco, the Cuban-born maestro who resides in Lutherville, and David Russell, a brilliant player who was born in Scotland but who has spent most of his life in Spain.

Musicians, especially guitarists, are reluctant to classify their talents, but in the competitive United States a pecking order is almost mandatory and in anyone's book of standings, Barrueco and Russell would be among the genre's top half-dozen artists.

Andrew York, a highly regarded guitar composer and member of the vaunted Los Angeles Guitar Quartet, opens the series Sept. 21. Russell will perform on Oct. 26 and Barrueco on Feb. 22 of next year. John Holmquist, a solid veteran with a great record for teaching fine guitarists, follows on March 22, and dynamic Antigoni Goni, a 20-year-old who won the Guitar Foundation of America competition last year, winds up the series on April 19.

All concerts are on Saturday nights at 8, at the Walters Art Gallery, with the exception of the performance by Barrueco, regarded by many as the finest guitarist in the world today. That one will be held in the Friedberg Hall of Peabody Institute, Barrueco's alma mater, where he is resident artist on an all-star teaching staff.

How the BCGS reached this level of credibility is an entertaining story of determination, imagination and an attitude of good old let's-all-pitch-in-and-help.

For instance, the current schedule was arranged by concert chairman David Hepple, a self-employed sales and marketing consultant who is in his fifth season as a society volunteer.

Salesmanship

Hepple's force of personality and salesmanship have been instrumental in persuading top players to come here, some at cut-rate prices. He also was a key figure in reaching an agreement four years ago with the Walters to stage concerts at its 500-seat subterranean theater. Though far from perfect acoustically, the venue is centrally located in a prestigious institution, and the BCGS also benefits from having its concert plans printed in the Walters newsletter, which goes to more than 7,000 members.

When Hepple first volunteered his services, the society's president was Mike Kirkpatrick, who took over from founder Matt Bieneman and laid the groundwork for the group's growth. Kirkpatrick, who runs a guitar sales and music business from his Arbutus home, started the idea of a concert subscription series and instituted the practice of frequent open recitals for members.

Along with Kara Koppanyi, Vivia Chang, Mickey Verschilling and Jim Fortier, he also organized a program called "Project Outreach" which sends local guitarists into hospitals, nursing homes and schools to entertain and educate those who normally would have no contact with the classical guitar.

Kirkpatrick still is involved with the society, keeping its office in his home and processing ticket orders. He has surrendered the presidential duties, however, to Fortier, a mechanical engineer who agrees with Hepple that the secret to a successful series is promotion and delivering performers whose styles excite an audience.

"We know how to play in the big leagues now," says Fortier, "and I hope we can keep it going. Once we've done this well, people won't want to go back to a lesser level. Dave Hepple has this concert thing down to a science now, and we have confidence in our ability to book the best.

"Five years ago, we were on a shoestring, but thankfully we've had help from people like Julian Gray and Ron Pearl [a Baltimore-based internationally acclaimed guitar duo], who played a benefit concert for us several years ago that got our heads above water."

Hepple has employed some unorthodox ideas in helping to build an audience for this much-misunderstood and difficult-to-play instrument. Using Gray, who is also a much-respected teacher of the guitar at Peabody, as a soundboard, he has sought out "high-quality performers who will give you a trustworthy performance and don't cost an arm and a leg.

Get their attention

"Brand names are no good in this market," Hepple says, "but we couldn't afford to have performers who were less than the best. In classical guitar, unless you can bring in people who can knock an audience out of its seat, you're running a huge risk of boredom."

To help build up the kitty four years ago -- and to prevent boredom -- Hepple and Kirkpatrick brought in Paco de Malaga, a stunning flamenco guitarist from Washington, and his wife, Ana Martinez, an accomplished dancer who is usually accompanied by her own troupe.

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