SEPTEMBER 2007 – NO. 17
My Guitar Flies Solo to Bucharest
While the world is full of guitars, this one was mine
The end of college is often an unacknowledged disaster for a young artist. The long horizon of studying collapses, and your career becomes a day-to-day question, even if you're not ready to answer it. In August of 1984, I had just graduated from the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston with a degree in classical guitar. But I couldn't audition for orchestral jobs, like my violinist friends. There are no guitars in an orchestra. No: the guitar is a solo instrument; my instrument and I would have to make our way alone in the world.
Classical guitar has always struggled for legitimacy on the concert stage. A handful of players succeed as performing artists. But most professional guitarists teach, performing occasionally, and filling out the income gaps with wedding gigs and gallery openings. While at the Conservatory, I had won two prestigious competitions and had as good a chance as most at a concert career. All I needed was more experience performing. But now that I was done with school, I had to bills to pay and student loans to pay off. For years, I had dreamed of a life of tours and recordings and had trained to make it possible. As an unknown guitarist in Boston, however, my future promised more performances of "Memories" from the musical Cats, as bride and groom pledged eternal love. When a friend was accepted at the Vienna Conservatory and suggested I audition there as well, I leaped at the chance.
Vienna, music capital of the world, home of Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, and Mahler. I imagined concerts at the Musikverein and ballrooms full of glittering aristocrats, tables laid with Demmel marzipan, the white Lipizzaner horses prancing in the courtyard. If any city embodied the life I dreamed of leading, it was Vienna. The scheme had practical advantages, too. Austrian universities were essentially free, and in those days, a young musician could live in agreeable squalor for about a hundred dollars a month. I bought a one-way ticket on Tarom Romanian Airlines for $150 cash. I carefully packed my instrument — a handmade guitar, built from the door of a Spanish church — in its heavy fiberglass traveling case.
Sitting on the thinly cushioned seat of an Ilyushin 62, the largest Soviet-made passenger jet, I reveled in the exotic, bohemian adventure before me. The high-cheeked flight attendant was particularly delightful, with her uniform fashioned after a folk costume, red trim and a smock-like apron. "Eat," she insisted as she handed me a meal tray. That was half of her English vocabulary. Later, she returned holding a wicker basket over her arm. "Apple," she declared. I took a bite. I was 21 years old and ready to be the next Segovia.
My grand entrance into Vienna, however, was different than I had anticipated.
"What do you mean it's gone?" I stared uncomprehendingly at the hawk-like woman behind the lost baggage counter.
"I'm sorry, sir," she said sharply, "the plane has left."
I looked out the window of Vienna's pristine international airport. Cows grazed alongside the tarmac. A trail of jet exhaust pointed east.
"But I have a claim ticket," I stammered, still not willing to believe that my guitar had disappeared. "If the item is onboard the aircraft, it will be returned on the next flight from Bucharest," the agent said.
Bucharest? Now, my imagination turned against me. I saw my instrument arriving in Romania, and my head filled with clichés from Dracula. A tiny mountain village, peasants with pitchforks, smoking long, malignant pipes. And there's my guitar, disappearing untraceably into the dark Romanian interior. I saw it packed into a wagon and driven off into the wild. I heard strange, mysterious music; I heard wood being splintered for kindling.
How could I be so stupid? I had gone to Vienna to live like a real musician, and the first thing I had done was lose my guitar. When Segovia traveled, he booked an extra seat for his instrument, reserving it under the name "Miss Segovia." But even at Romanian prices, I couldn't afford such precautions. My instrument had flown as checked baggage. Now it was gone.
There was nothing else to do. I collected my little suitcase of clothes and caught the blue and white commuter train into the music capital of the world. As the Austrian countryside lurched past the train window, I cursed my carelessness and the awful uncertainty of my position. You can't be an instrumentalist without an instrument. And while the world is full of guitars, this one was mine. Years of practice had joined its voice so intimately with my own that the guitar seemed to express the truest part of me. I stared out the window, desperate and distraught. After a while, farms gave way to suburbs and industrial buildings, and the old imperial city rose around me. I greeted it emptily. Without my guitar, it felt like half of me was missing.
For two miserable days, I wandered the streets of the city alone, a real soloist for the first time. Then my guitar returned from Bucharest. It was undamaged, delivered by a stooped, fleshy man who carried it with one finger. I opened the case and looked at it. When my hands stopped shaking, I performed the simplest piece I knew. I had never been so happy to hold my guitar, and making music had never felt so good.
I didn't know then that my career would rise and fizzle, that I would eventually quit music, and so lose my guitar a second time. But for a second time it has returned, now as a very different part of my life. I no longer dream of making a career of music, though I feel the exhilaration of those early days again whenever I walk past Juilliard and see a kid with an instrument case. I have gone down other paths since the days when my guitar and I flew solo together. But I still think of that moment in Vienna with a sense of gratitude. Every time I sit down to play the guitar now, it feels like a reunion with myself.
Adapted from Practicing: A Musician's Return to Music, by Glenn Kurtz. Copyright © 2007 by Glenn Kurtz. Reprinted with permission from the publisher Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc.
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