Unplugged and underappreciated

Music: For many listeners, classical guitar is a first-string favorite.

January 25, 2001|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

It's one of the oldest, subtlest, even sexiest of instruments. It has endured periods of public disinterest and has maintained its dignity while an electric version of it has hogged the spotlight. And, unlike that plugged-in model, no one ever cavorts crazily all over a stage while playing it, or smashes it after a performance.

It's the classical guitar. And it's quite a survivor.

"Some of the first truly great composers wrote for it," says Ray Chester, coordinator of the guitar department at Peabody Conservatory. "And it was No. 1 in the Elizabethan period, with thousands of works written for it. But around Bach's time, there was a shift to bigger and louder instruments. Then, with the advent of the modern piano, string quartets and large orchestras, people felt the guitar was too soft. They thought louder was better."

Classical guitarists, and their audiences, know better. But appreciation for the guitar has not always been constant.

"Interest in the guitar still existed from the mid-19th century until well into the 20th," Chester says, "but it sort of fell asleep until [Andres] Segovia came along."

That Spanish guitarist single-handedly brought the guitar back into the limelight, with his impeccable musicianship and sensitive styling. He inspired many to take up the instrument, or to write for it.

"The guitar is still attracting some of the best composers," Chester says. "And the number of guitar events keeps growing. There is a large number of successful guitar societies throughout the United States. It's really the rebirth of the modern classical guitar."

Evidence of this can be heard locally tonight at Peabody, where the guitar department presents a free concert of works by Latin American composers, especially Roberto Sierra, currently the Philadelphia Orchestra's composer-in-residence.

And each season, the Baltimore Classical Guitar Society presents leading guitarists in performance, such as Franco Platino, who will give a recital early next month in Catonsville.

Platino, currently in the Artist Diploma program at Peabody studying with highly acclaimed Manuel Barrueco, started playing the guitar at age 10 in his native Sardinia, At 16, he performed live on Italian television.

He has earned prizes at several competitions, including the Naxos Recording Prize at the 1997 Guitar Foundation of America Competition. His critically hailed 1999 recording for the Naxos label captures his understated virtuosity and flair for musical lyricism.

"Guitar is taught in Italian conservatories," Platino says. "There are lots of students and aficionados. After I heard Manuel Barrueco give a master class in 1990, I was very inspired and asked where he was teaching. I got scholarships from my government to come to the States. I think I'll spend the rest of my life here."

Platino has been building a career as a soloist; he has already performed in Mexico and Europe. This season includes appearances in such diverse spots as Mississippi, the Canary Islands and Holland, as well as an important New York debut in April at the Weill Recital Hall of Carnegie Hall. Concerts from Philadelphia to Estonia beckon next season.

"Not many other 27-year-olds are doing so much playing," Platino says. "I feel very lucky."

The guitarist also recently joined the faculty of the Levine School of Music in Washington, adding to the regional legacy of Peabody's guitar department.

"This guitar program, which began in 1964, was the first at an American conservatory," Chester says. "We have been developing better and better players. Many of them stay in the area and have teaching jobs as well as performing careers. If you look around at guitar programs in schools in the area - Catonsville, Towson, Essex, Frostburg - you usually find Peabody grads."

With about 40 guitar majors, half from outside the United States, Peabody will make a significant contribution to the international classical guitar scene for years to come.

"We're fortunate to have a lot of very advanced students," Chester says, "which is why we can put on the Latin American concert."

Tonight's program started out as a way of honoring Puerto Rican-born Sierra's substantial contributions to the guitar repertoire; the composer will attend the concert and also give a public master class. His works for solo guitar, guitar and flute, and guitar and string orchestra are slated.

Rounding out the evening will be pieces by Argentinian Alberto Ginastera and Paraguayan Agustin Barrios for solo guitar; Brazilian Radames Gnatali for guitar and cello; and Cuban Leo Brouwer for guitar quartet.

A program of 20th-century music can be a hard sell on its own; a program of classical guitar music, from any era, can be, too.

"We need to do a better job of attracting a wider audience," Chester says. "There's no question about that. But I think the awareness of the guitar is much greater than it has been. Barrueco's concerts here are always sold out, so the audience is there."

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