If musicians were scouted like athletes, then the sheet on classical guitarist Christopher Parkening in the early '60s might have read as follows:
"The kid's a natural, has solid fingerboard sense. An impact player, who'll make his presence felt immediately. Rating: A 'can't miss' prospect -- he's got it all, great hands, tone, technique and charisma, and they spell star."
Twenty-twenty hindsight is easy. But it would not have taken a genius to predict Parkening's destiny in 1963, when at 15 he participated in Andres Segovia's first master class at the University of California at Berkeley. Parkening had been playing the guitar for all of four years.
His position as America's best known and, many would insist, finest classical guitarist, the heir apparent to Segovia in his purity of expression, came as no surprise. What he did with success, how he rearranged his life's priorities, deviated from the script. Parkening, for a time, simply dropped out.
In recent years, though, he resumed touring, refreshed and with a new outlook. Friday night, the 39-year-old guitarist makes his first Washington stop in a decade and his first appearance at the Kennedy Center as a recitalist. This is just one stop in a season that includes solo and concerto engagements around the world, and several recording projects.
Parkening has an uncanny sense of timing mixed with good fortune that has followed him since he first picked up a guitar as a kid in Los Angeles, and his cousin Jack Marshall, a staff guitarist at MGM, used to drop by the house and play. Parkening entertained thoughts, fleetingly, of getting into popular music. Marshall encouraged him to get a strong foundation.
"He said I should start with classical, that I would gain enough technique from that style to go into any other with much greater ease," Parkening recalls. "He also told me to get the records of Andres Segovia, whom he considered the greatest guitarist in the world."
Parkening remembers visiting a record store with Marshall to see about lessons, but the teacher was booked solid. "He told us there was Spanish family that had moved into town, and he'd heard they were very good guitarists. Of course, they were the Romeros. I was so grateful." Today, the Romeros are recognized as the first family of guitarists. Parkening spent the next few years studying with Celedonio Romero and his son Pepe.
He calls his Berkeley master class "the most profound experience I had regarding the guitar. Segovia opened a new horizon for me, not only technically but musically."
Parkening won the Berkeley scholarship thanks to composer Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco, who had sent Segovia a tape of the young soloist performing his Concerto in D, a work written for Segovia and acknowledged as the first modern concerto for guitar and orchestra. "There were nine students chosen from all over the world to perform in that class, and there were about 2,000 auditors, so it was a terrifying experience."
Years later, Parkening enrolled at the University of Southern California as, of all things, a cello student because there was no guitar department. He took courses in music interpretation with the renowned cellist Gregor Piatigorsky.
"I was studying strict interpretation of the music without a bias toward the guitar. When you study with someone who is not aware of the problems of your instrument, he can grade your progress purely by the music. This broadened my education tremendously."
So did getting thrust into roles as teacher and concert artist. USC asked Parkening to start its guitar department. Between 1967 and 1968 he figures that on top of studying, teaching, he was playing 70 concerts a year, a schedule that became more frantic once his first records "In the Classic Style" and "In the Spanish Style" hit the stores in 1968.
He had his father to thank for negotiating a good contract with Angel Records. Duke Parkening had always given support. Parkening remembers family trips to the High Sierras in northern California and early hands-on instruction in trout fly-fishing. The youngster became good at it, eventually winning the Western United States All-Around Casting Championship.
Duke felt paying dues was necessary for any pursuit, a lesson he passed on to his son. If Parkening were going to play guitar, he must practice before and after school. This was a strict regimen for a teen-ager who found it difficult to stay indoors when there was "the temptation to go out and play football with the other guys."
In the late '70s, Parkening lost his drive to perform. His schedule -- as many as 90 dates annually -- seemed like a merry-go-round he couldn't get off. His ambition had once been to make a pile of money and retire early. In 1979, at the ripe young age of 32, he did, heading north for his ranch in Bozeman, Mont., where the trout was plentiful and his wife Barbara had all the room she needed to raise Arabian and Andalusian horses.
Parkening looks back at this 3 1/2-year stretch as a "sabbatical," yet at the time, he says, "I wasn't sure that I was going to go back. I though I had everything that would make me happy." He enjoyed the life of a Big Sky Izaak Walton, which allowed freedom to come and go as he pleased. He no longer practiced, but did some teaching at Montana State University.
Montana gets pretty cold. The expression there is "nine months of winter, and three months of guests," Parkening says with a laugh. "Every relative you've ever known wants to take a vacation and stay at your ranch in the summer." And vice versa. He and Barbara often came down out of the mountains to visit family in California.
On one such visit, a neighbor invited him to attend a nondenominational church. "My parents had me baptized at an early age and told me I was a Christian, so I believed I was," Parkening says. "And yet my life did not characterize anything of the sort." The sermon, based on the Gospel in which Jesus explains that a true Christian is known by his deeds, hit home. "When I heard that, I thought, 'That's me|' I believe all the right stuff, but my life is totally selfish, materialistic."
Parkening doesn't like the phrase "born again," but in fact, he says, his faith was renewed, and he took stock of his life. Retirement wasn't all it was cracked up to be. He had become a gentleman caretaker. So he eased into performing, this time in a different spirit. "I wanted to start playing the guitar again, to glorify the Lord in some small way. I was inspired by the words of Bach when he said, 'The aim and final reason of all music is none else but the glory of God.' I decided, well, if Bach can do that, I can try with the little bit of talent or ability the Lord's given me."
The past several years have seen the itinerary swell to 70 concert dates this year. He's added three recordings to his catalogue (consistent best sellers for Angel) -- "Simple Gifts," a collection of sacred works, "A Bach Celebration for Guitar and Orchestra" and "Pleasures of Their Company," an appropriately titled collaboration with Kathleen Battle that declared squatter's rights on the Billboard charts (46 weeks this weekend) besides making Time's "Best of '86" list. Parkening hopes for the same kind of chemistry with Placido Domingo Feb. 18 on a PBS broadcast of "Live From Lincoln Center."
His program at the Kennedy Center will be a largely Spanish repertoire with some French impressionism (including Debussy's "The Maid With the Flaxen Hair," arranged for guitar by Jack Marshall) and no Bach. Many of the Spanish pieces are slated for his next Angel record. "Concertizing with the pieces you're going to record polishes them and it kind of burnishes them. I believe the record is better for it."
Patti Laursen, Parkening's producer at Angel, reinforces the idea when she describes his "very intense music making."
"Chris is very laser-like in his focus," she says. "It isn't a matter of just doing a few things, relaxing for a bit, then going back. He's very much a perfectionist, concerned about color and changes that shape a phrase. He works very hard to get all that detail; his feeling is that records are there to last a very long time, and he'd rather take the time to do it right."
His extreme care reflects advice Segovia offered years ago. In fact, discuss any aspect of guitar playing, and the maestro's name comes up. What was one of Parkening's biggest breaks? The 1968 competition in Spain chaired by Segovia, who pulled strings to affect the outcome in his 20-year-old prote'ge''s behalf (though in the ensuing controversy, no first prize was given). How about a little guitar philosophy? Parkening relates Segovia's remark that he is still both "student and teacher, and student and teacher get in many arguments."
Segovia may see a reflection of his own talents as a youth in the virtuosic play of Parkening. Physically, they are opposites. Segovia, the stern, bespectacled, portly Spaniard, Parkening the handsome all-American, equally at home on stage or on the range. He politely brushes aside the "golden boy" image imposed on him in the '60s by quoting his mentor.
"It's kind of like Segovia told me last summer. He said, 'You know, all the students in the class have more than enough technique, but there is only one with music in her soul.' Labels that are placed on people, I suppose, don't matter; ultimately it's the expression of the music. If you've got good technique when you're a teen-ager, you might have some labels placed on you that are complimentary, but it's that combination of technique and musicianship that really makes for a true artist."