Star-Bulletin Features

Friday, September 17, 1999


At age 11, virtuoso’s passion
for classical guitar was clear

10 years to finish concerto

By Tim Ryan


MAYBE the truly fortunate people really are those who know early on what they're going to be when they grow up. Classical guitarist Christopher Parkening, who performs with the Honolulu Symphony Sunday and Tuesday in a world premiere of Elmer Bernstein's Concerto for Guitar and Orchestra, believes he did. (Bernstein will attend the Parkening concerts.)

"My uncle Jack Marshall was a staff guitarist for MGM studios and he used to come over to our house and play," said Parkening, 51. "I loved the sound of the instrument immediately. I knew it's what I wanted to do."

When the 11-year-old Parkening told his cousin his ambition, the musician instructed him to do two things: Start studying classical music to get a foundation in technique; then buy all the records he could afford of Andre Segovia, considered the greatest guitarist in the world.

Parkening eventually studied under the master and by age 19 had won numerous guitar contests. For the last quarter century, Parkening has been considered one of the world's preeminent virtuosos of the classical guitar.


'I loved the sound of the
instrument immediately. I knew it's
what I wanted to do'

Christopher Parkening


"I thought in the beginning that I would play more popular music but listening and training under the master changed that," Parkening said from his San Fernando Valley, Calif., home. "And the (classical) guitar is a great crossover instrument, a wonderful vehicle to bring the beauty of this music to the younger generation."

Parkening sees his work as a calling, dismissing accolades and awards.

"A number of years ago I asked Segovia how often he practiced. He said 'Christopher, I practice everyday, two-and-a-half hours in the morning and two-and-a-half hours in the afternoon.' I remember thinking that if the master needs to practice that much, how much time do I need?"

But Parkening, perhaps unlike Segovia, understands that all practice and no play does not make for a balanced life. The guitarist takes Sundays off to attend church with his family and he enjoys the esoteric sport of fly fishing.

Though the activity seems to fit well with Parkening's calling, he laughs when asked about similarities between fly fishing and classical guitar.

"Technique, discipline and hard work is important in both," he says.

Parkening makes some of his own lures, or flies, and works at developing the most natural way to present the fly to the fish.

"If you see a big trout rising in a difficult area of a stream you have to strategize ways to pursue the fish and stalk it. Then you release it for another fisherman down the line."

Parkening's dad taught his son the art of fly fishing in the family's back yard, long before the guitar grabbed hold.

"He taught me to be committed to the pursuit of personal excellence," Parkening said. "He didn't care how successful or not I was going to be, but said always do my best."

Parkening's verbal transition from fishing to classical guitar is all too smooth. In music, for instance, difficult techniques represent the battle between fish and fisher. Once the fish is caught, he said, "You start the stalking again, seeking out that difficult part of the stream, looking for the most natural way to get there."

By Kathryn Bender, Star-Bulletin
Composer Elmer Bernstein on the beach at
Kahala Mandarin Oriental Hotel.

Composer took 10 years -
and guitar lessons - to
finish concerto

When composer Elmer Bernstein composes people listen. Millions have heard his music, mostly as movie themes: "Thoroughly Modern Millie," "The Making of a President, 1960," "To Kill a Mockingbird," and "Hawaii."

So when he says someone is one of the best guitarists in the world -- in this case classical guitarist Christopher Parkening who plays with the Honolulu Symphony Sunday and Tuesday -- you know there's something there.

Parkening was a teenager when Bernstein met the young guitarist who was sponsored by the Young Musicians Foundation of which the composer was president. Bernstein introduced Parkening to the world on the old Steve Allen Television Show.

Ten years later Parkening asked Bernstein to compose a guitar concerto.

"I started working on it, but I was so busy with films that I couldn't get into it," said Bernstein who is in Hawaii to attend the world premier of his Concerto for Guitar and Orchestra.

Parkening approached Bernstein again 18 months ago to finish the piece. This time Bernstein said he "really got into it."

But the major problem for Bernstein was understanding what the guitar can do since he's a pianist. So Bernstein, Parkening and another guitarist friend worked to teach the composer about the instrument. Bernstein finished the concerto's first movement in December, the second by late spring, and the last in August.

Subtitle of the concerto is "For Two Christrophers" for Parkening and another Bernstein friend, orchestrator Christopher Palmer who encouraged him to complete the piece.

"I know he was disappointed when I didn't; now he's passed away," Bernstein said.

Tim Ryan, Star-Bulletin

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