Connected by strings
David Starobin, who appears as soloist with the Santa Fe Symphony Orchestra this weekend, is revered in the world of the classical guitar not only for his musical virtuosity but also for broadening his instrument’s repertoire. More than 300 new works have been written for him by an A-list of composers that includes such notables as George Crumb, Elliott Carter, Milton Babbitt, Lukas Foss, and Gunther Schuller. Starobin began studying guitar at the age of 7, graduated from the Peabody Conservatory, became the first guitarist ever honored with Lincoln Center’s Avery Fisher Career Grant, and, from 1993 through 2004, chaired the Manhattan School of Music’s guitar department, which he built into one of the most prestigious guitar programs in the world. He still teaches there, occupying the school’s Andrés Segovia Chair, but he felt he needed to reduce his involvement in order to restore balance to his three-pronged musical life. Apart from teaching, his career includes a busy performance schedule and constant work as director of artists and repertoire for Bridge Records in New Rochelle, New York, which he and his wife, Becky, founded in 1981 and which currently releases about 35 CDs every year.
Fitting everything in takes some juggling. “I practice every morning,” Starobin says, “but it has gotten so that the only way I can do that is to wake up earlier and earlier. Now I often get up at 5:30 or 6, practice for a couple of hours, and head to the office by 9 to put in a full day’s work as a record producer.” Bridge used to be considered a small label, but it has at least held steady while most of the long-standing megaliths of the classical recording industry have retrenched. In any case, it has always qualified as a major label in the world of contemporary music. Although it has released its share of standard classical repertoire, usually performed by intriguing musicians who stand a bit to the side of the mainstream, the label’s niche expertise is contemporary music. The complete works of Crumb (so far reaching to 14 composersupervised volumes), eight volumes of works by Carter, CD after CD of music by Mario Davidovsky, Poul Ruders, and Paul Lansky — such is the focus of Starobin’s work at Bridge, which has been honored with 20 Grammy nominations and three Grammy awards. “If this were a huge commercial enterprise,” he observes, “you’d say it was ridiculous. It’s certainly not a model for any business I’ve ever heard of. The core of our company is the appreciation for the art itself, and that’s what allows us to forge on.”
Starobin’s passion for the music of our time should not be taken to signal an aversion to earlier repertoire. His personal discography, which reaches to about 50 releases on Bridge and other labels, includes classic guitar works by the likes of Luigi Boccherini, Fernando Sor, and Mauro Giuliani, and he has done more than anybody to refurbish the faded reputation of Giulio Regondi, trumpeted through two Bridge releases as “the 19th century’s unparalleled guitarist and concertinist.” In Santa Fe, Starobin plays one of his instrument’s seminal concertos, the Concierto del Sur, written in 1941 by the Mexican composer Manuel Ponce. A work rich in Mexican folkloric flavor, it shares the program with the vibrant Sinfonía India (1935-1936) by Ponce’s compatriot Carlos Chávez, pieces by the Brazilian composer Joaquim Serra and the Spaniard Joaquín Rodrigo, and a new work by the Santa Fe Symphony’s music director and conductor, Steven Smith.
The Concierto del Sur was one of numerous concertos written for the venerated Spanish guitarist Andrés Segovia, who exchanged extensive correspondence with Ponce while the piece was being coaxed into existence. “Segovia was very opinionated about what he liked and didn’t like,” Starobin says, “so the revisions in this piece became very much a product of both hands. This has led to some textual problems, because all of Ponce’s guitar music initially appeared in editions by Segovia. An aspect of Segovia’s personality was imposed on the