PortFolio Weekly

PortFolio Weekly
May 2, 2006

No Strings Attached

by Jim Newsom

David Russell has technique to burn. He is a genuine virtuoso of the classical guitar, probably the best of his generation, revered and respected by other guitarists. And while he plays thoroughly composed music, there is a freedom and spontaneity in his playing that is rare in the classical idiom.

“That’s the purpose,” he said recently in his Scottish brogue. “That’s what you strive for. We have to enjoy the music that we do best and hopefully give the music as much life as we can.”

Russell, who performs at the Roper Performing Arts Center next Tuesday night under the auspices of the Virginia Arts Festival and the Tidewater Classical Guitar Society, had just wrapped up recording sessions for his next album in Baltimore when we spoke. His current CD, Renaissance Favorites for Guitar, just came out last week on the Telarc label.

“It doesn’t really have a title yet,” he laughed when I asked about the Baltimore sessions, “but one of the titles that’s been suggested is A Whole Lot of Nice Pieces for Guitar That I Haven’t Recorded Yet! It’s not a theme record; it’s just a whole lot of guitar pieces that didn’t fit into any other project.”

As is fairly typical in classical music, most of his recordings have had themes—Spanish Legends, David Russell Plays Bach, Music of Giuliani. His 2004 recording of Latin American guitar music, Aire Latino, won a Grammy. I wondered, given his age (he’s about to turn 53) and his choice of instrument, how he had chosen the classical route over rock and roll.

“When I grew up,” he said, “I was living in Spain, in Minorca. That was Franco’s time and Spain was really not as open to the rest of the world as it is now. The rock music arrived a little bit later. My friends who played in rock bands were all about five years younger than me. The folk music that I grew up with was more Spanish folk music and Mexican songs, not so much The Beatles or The Rolling Stones.

“The little island that I grew up on was only 30 miles by 15, so it’s a really small place and not a very cosmopolitan place. They lived with their own folk music much more.

“My father plays, and he had a really nice collection of 78-rpm records of Andres Segovia. That was most of the music we had at home. My father loves old-time jazz and flamenco, but mostly classical guitar; that was his thing. He taught me at first, and the instruments we had at home were guitars. So that’s the way it started.

“There were, in our little village, a couple of older men who used the guitar more as an accompanying instrument, you know, they played some chords for the folk songs. But my father was really my teacher. He knew a fair amount about classical playing.”

Though he was born in Glasgow, young David Russell moved to the Spanish island of Minorca in the Mediterranean when he was six years old.

“Both of my parents were artists,” he explained, “and they felt that working in Scotland wasn’t allowing them to develop as artists, as painters. So they piled the family into a van and headed off. They were just like adventurers. It was before the hippie scene and all that, but without being hippies, they were much more adventurous than lots of people. ’59 was the year we went there.

“They were young, with several children, and they thought, ‘well, do it now or don’t do it.’ What was going to be just a few months adventure ended up being many, many years. At first it was hard to make a living, but they started selling some paintings, teaching some English, and eventually their art gallery really developed and that was what we lived from.”

He went to London’s Royal Academy of Music when he was sixteen, graduating in 1974. After further study and a number of guitar prizes, he made his recording debut in 1978 and burst onto the international scene in 1981 with performances in London and New York. Since then, he’s built a following around the world, playing occasionally in orchestral settings, but usually alone with his guitar:

“For me it’s easiest to make the connection with the audience when I’m on my own.”

He’ll emphasize music from his new album at the Roper Tuesday night.

“About a third of the concert will be Renaissance pieces,” he said. “I’ll try to put them over and make the audience enjoy. For two reasons—one is to make people aware of the CD, but it’s also from a practical point of view. I spent all that time last year working on that music so I’d like to use it for my concerts. [But] there are five Venezuelan folk songs that I put on next year’s CD, and I’ll be finishing the concert with them.”

As a major marquee name of the genre, I asked his thoughts on expanding the audience for classical music.

“I think all classical music is suffering,” he replied, ‘in the sense that we’re getting swamped in the media. It’s happening more in this country than in Europe. All of us classical players have to make a big effort—every time we play, every time we have a concert, every time we have a situation on the radio—we have to do it well and take advantage of it and attract people to what we do. Our music is one of the most developed forms of music, and a lot of the pop music is very basic by comparison.

“I’m getting mostly full halls because of things that went well for me, but I’m more worried for the younger generation. How are they going to do it? So each of us has to put a little bit of effort in there, show the enthusiasm for the beauty of our music.

“I think classical musicians have to find ways of making it financially viable in all the different ways possible. All art forms and cultural forms are always slightly endangered, but they do survive. Even museums have had to modernize and get with the times to find ways of making their attributes attractive to younger people.”

copyright © 2006 Jim Newsom. All Rights Reserved.