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Guitar Goddess

Classical guitar is deadly serious, right? Not to Susan McDonald.

A short while back, a friend walked in while I was playing "Campanas del Alba," a track off a new album titled Tico Tico. He stopped to listen, and when I asked him to describe the artist whose carefully plucked, hauntingly precise notes of unaccompanied classical guitar were flowing out of the speakers, he didn't hesitate. The picture was clear in his mind. "Latin guy in his forties," he said. "Probably from Argentina or Spain."

A predictable expectation for folks to have of a guitarist who is frequently -- and favorably -- compared to Andres Segovia. Only problem is, it's an expectation that's dead wrong. The name on Tico Tico is that of Houston's Susan McDonald, and as the CD cover photo of a beaming blond in a tank top and flowered skirt makes clear, nobody who's ever seen her is going to mistake McDonald for a male of any nationality any time soon.

Although she's hardly a household name in her hometown, enthusiasts around the world have known for years that McDonald is one of the best contemporary classical guitarists going. In Germany, she plays recital halls before hushed, reverent crowds; in New York, a concert at Carnegie Hall drew enthusiastic reviews; in Houston, she recently spent a Saturday afternoon playing in the courtyard at Town & Country Mall.

"That was a lot of fun," she declared, laughing, a week later. "They had an incredible sound system. A little too good, really. Any time anyone near me said anything, the microphone was picking it up and broadcasting it through the mall." There are several things wrong with this picture. Classical music is supposed to be serious stuff, not fun, and classical guitars are never amplified. Fortunately, McDonald never managed to learn those rules; she's been having fun playing guitar and studying classical music for most of her life.

"When I was about four my big sister got a guitar," McDonald explains, "and I just fell in love with it. I grew up with classical music; my father plays the harpsichord. When I was 12, he got me a set of classical guitar lessons, all Spanish music, and I guess that was where it all started." Given her location at the time, there wasn't much else to do but study classical guitar. "We were living in Hobbs, New Mexico -- the town that banned Life of Brian," McDonald says. "My dad works as a chemist, and his job took us out there for a while. For excitement, we would drive two hours to go to Midland."

There was at least one pivotal incident in Hobbs, though. For some reason, classical guitar legend Pepe Romero came to town to play. "I had always admired Pepe," McDonald remembers. "That was the first guitar concert I ever heard, and that cemented my love for the guitar." Fortunately for McDonald, her father's career soon brought the family back to Houston, where she had an expanded opportunity to study her instrument. "I was in ninth grade when I started studying with Wolfgang Justen at the University of St. Thomas," she says. "My mom would drive me over to the campus twice a week from Humble." By the time McDonald graduated from high school, her skills had grown sufficiently to merit attention from early influence Romero. "He would come to Houston every year for a concert and a master's class, and I got into the class," she recalls. "It was a neat deal, lasted for a week. There were about 15 people, from all over the country, and every day you've got to play for them -- so you're in a performance situation and being critiqued in front of the audience."

Perhaps noting the enthusiasm of a player who could describe what many musicians would view as hell week as a "neat deal," Romero offered McDonald further opportunities to learn from him. After a year of private lessons in California, McDonald returned to Houston and St. Thomas while continuing to study with Romero. "I studied with Pepe for a long time, just commuting," she says. "The Romero family toured a lot, and I would take off and go wherever they were." In classical music, more so than in most musical forms, the transition from student to professional is a lengthy one. As in any other genre, though, there was the obligatory weird gig.

"The first gig I ever got paid for was a funeral," McDonald remembers. "I had never seen a dead person before, and I was right up there by the guest of honor. It was a little ... unnerving." Better performance opportunities followed, ranging from an original composition that served as the soundtrack of a local car dealership's TV ad to a 1992 residency at Canada's Banff Centre for the Arts. The following year, McDonald decided that her art had evolved enough to justify recording. To retain creative control, she decided to become a mogul as well as a musician.

"Basically, I am Mayfly Records," she explains. "It wasn't hard to do, and that way my albums say what I want them to say." 1993's The Dream of Christopher Columbus, featuring works by modern composers such as Astor Piazzolla, Leo Brouwer and John King, drew a surprising amount of notice in classical circles for an independent release from a relatively unknown artist. A year and a half later, McDonald returned to the studio to record The Cathedral, a collection of works by Paganini, Barrios and Bach. Her renditions of those time-honored works resulted in three Grammy nominations. "That," says McDonald with understatement, "was a real honor." But even those hallowed compositions didn't interfere with McDonald's interest in having fun with her music.

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