Guitar Goddess

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.

"When Cathedral came out, I did the [release] concert at Ovations," McDonald recalls. "We had panels that looked like stained glass, and it was dark except for candles burning around the stage. Using effects like that is a lot of fun. I'd like to do that a lot more. I even" -- and she begins to laugh at the notion of a performer versed in Bach and Paganini having such audacity -- "did a concert not long ago where I used a fog machine."

"There's a very real need to take classical music to places where it's not expected," McDonald adds, even though she admits that "there are some problems with audiences that aren't acquainted with classical music -- sometimes people aren't sure when to applaud, things like that." At a recent juxtaposition of genres on Richmond Row, however, no such problems were in evidence. McDonald took the stage at Billy Blues following her friend Jerry Lightfoot, who was performing at his birthday celebration. Following a six-piece blues-rock band that's already fired up a capacity crowd could be intimidating for any solo artist, much less one playing an acoustic guitar into a single microphone. But moments into McDonald's first selection the noisy crowd had quieted. Her music had focused their attention. As she performed selections from Tico Tico, the hypnotic precision of McDonald's playing transformed what a few minutes before had been a rowdy roadhouse into a concert hall. Sure, the crowd hollered its approval along with the applause between selections -- you can't completely educate an audience in one short set -- but the unmistakable approval underlined McDonald's views about the untapped appeal of classical guitar.

Although the works of long-dead composers are obligatory for classical performers, McDonald prefers "finding things that haven't been recorded before." She's found South America to be a fertile field for contemporary classical composers; Tico Tico mixes hints of flamenco and tango to enliven the rigid, complex structure of compositions such as Morel's "Romance Criollo" and Guimaraes' aptly named "Sound of Bells." If classical guitar's appeal had to be summarized in a word, that word would be "hypnotic" -- but the hypnosis induced by Tico Tico leaves the subject entranced with a smile. It's most evident on the title track -- a composition from the soundtrack of the film comedy Club Havana. It's an impressive work, one obviously far beyond the skills of most guitarists, but it's still somehow infectiously funny. "It's just that whole Carmen Miranda [who starred in the film] thing," McDonald says. "It's about a bird who gets in the granary and eats up all the grain. For some reason I have this bird thing happening. My view of music is ... music is such an ornament, it can mean a lot more than that, but music should make you feel better, like someplace with bright colors will make you feel better and birds are so colorful and free. It all just goes together."

It's a rather carefree explanation of a lifelong obsession, especially one with costs that might be missed by a casual observer. Classical guitars, which are plucked, not picked, require an obsessive concern for the player's hands and fingers. McDonald cites a very bad year when she was afflicted with tendinitis -- in her left hand. A right-handed classical guitarist, you see, does everything except play guitar with the left. "That was rough," she says, before mourning "I would love to bowl, but I can't because it's so bad for the wrist. Volleyball, where you can jam your fingers, is another activity that I can't risk."

McDonald's regrets about the limitations her art puts on her lifestyle, though, are minimal. The sorrows of a lifetime of refraining from volleyball and bowling pale beside having unrepentant fun in a concert hall; McDonald smiles mischievously while telling of selecting the works for her Halloween Eve concert last year at Carnegie Hall. "I like picking a theme for the concert, so for Halloween I played 'A L'Aube du Dernier Jour,' which is about a man who's about to be hanged. It's got all these great sound effects, the ticking of the clock and the turning of the key and feet shuffling across the floor. And I played Koshkin's 'Usher Waltz,' which is based on the Edgar Allen Poe story ... it was a lot of fun."

Devotion to a demanding art form with limited potential for widespread stardom is not what most people would call "fun." But there's outright glee alongside the restrained self-confidence in McDonald's face when she describes the moments the rest of her life revolves around. "You're up there by yourself. In most concert halls, the audience is sitting in the dark; there's one spotlight and there you are," she notes. "It's up to you."

Susan McDonald plays at 8 p.m. Saturday, November 9, at First Unitarian Universalist Church, 5200 Fannin. Tickets are $10. For info, call 641-2334.

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Jim Sherman