Composing Amid Montana Splendor

Guitarist Stuart Weber takes his cue from nature

STUART WEBER established his credentials among classical guitarists two years ago with his self-produced compact disc "Evening in the Country," featuring works by Bach, Handel, Scarlatti, Debussy, Bartok, and other composers.

Now, Mr. Weber, a young prot of notable guitarist Christopher Parkening (which makes him a third-generation Segovian since Parkening studied under the master Andres Segovia), is recording a CD of his own "new classical" compositions reflecting the vastness and beauty of his home state, Montana.

Monitor photographer Robert Harbison and I stumbled on Mr. Weber during a recent story-gathering trip throughout the Northwest.

During a performance at the Myrna Loy Center for the Performing Arts (a renovated jail) in Helena, Mont., we were struck by Weber's blending of classical melodic phrasings and techniques with modern themes, as well as with the universality of the "stories" he told through his music - whether or not one heard him explain the story line beforehand.

There was also a depth of expression, even passion, both for the instrument's possibilities and for the music.

We chatted at a reception after the Helena concert, and the guitarist quickly invited us to the farm where he and his wife, Sas, live and work.

Weber was a self-taught guitarist (Segovia and Parkening were, too, for the most part) who spent years playing in bars and restaurants - mostly pop music and his own tunes, "dumb little folk songs, cute songs, clever songs," Weber says.

But the more he learned about the guitar and the best music written for the instrument, the more he was drawn to the classical compositions.

He had just traded in his steel-stringed Martin for "a cheap classical" when he learned that Parkening (who had a second home in Montana where he honed his skills as a world-class fly fisherman) was auditioning potential students for a master class.

Weber went to Parkening's home, where he played Bach's "Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring." Listening to the piece, which he had transcribed and recorded himself, the virtuoso rocked furiously in his chair, Weber recalls.

"He took one look at my playing and said, 'You have to start over - you're not doing anything right.' "

Despite the shaky beginning, Parkening saw something in Weber worth nurturing. He not only accepted him into the class of 12 students but phoned around the town of Bozeman to find him lodging.

That was 11 years ago and since then Weber's technical skills and grasp of the classics have expanded greatly. He has played to appreciative audiences around the Northwest.

After a solid year of practice he now feels comfortable performing Bach's Chaconne in D minor, which the composer Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco once called "the single greatest piece of music ever written" and which the author of album liner notes for Parkening's own recording of it says is "the ultimate test of a guitarist's technical and interpretive prowess."

At the same time, Weber's roots as a fourth-generation Montanan (his family still ranches up near the Canadian border) have led him to interpret the world around him in classic-musical terms.

Among the pieces he performed on stage and in his living room during our visit were "Gibbon Meadow," "Gallatin Jig," "Family Suite," "Missouri Breaks," "The Night Scribe," and "Hired Man's Dream" (the title of his next recording).

Each piece either paints a picture (he has been compared to Western painter Charles Russell) or tells a story - of mountain ranges, rivers, family relationships, astronomical phenomena, ranch life.

The landscape itself, Weber says, "always has a story to tell because it is constantly changing."

The pieces, mixing classical and modern elements, reflect moods of excitement and power, wonder and awe, intimacy, affection, and nostalgia.

They are full of rich chord progressions, and they demand certain playing techniques with the right hand that Weber acknowledges do not always have Parkening's approval.

Because some of his compositions are so difficult, Weber says "there are a lot of people who could play my music better than me.

"But you shouldn't hesitate to write beyond your skills," he explains, "because your skills will catch up with your writing."

Weber practices at least five hours a day, "starting over every morning to develop good technique ... to remind myself that there's no room for slop."

He also works at "practicing for quiet, practicing for delicacy" and spends as much time with the classics as he does with his own pieces, because "being able to get into the head and hands of Bach for me as a classical composer just transcends centuries." He describes his own playing style as "disciplined freedom."

Weber's compositional method involves a lot of listening to the ageless sounds his environment evokes and to his response to it.

"I don't take over too soon," he says of this creative process. While he describes himself as non-religious, he also says, "it's not hard for me to believe in a spiritual realm when I'm playing in it." For him, creativity is "heaven happening right now, at this moment."

Currently, he is halfway through composing "Confluence Concerto," inspired by Montana's major rivers. Showing visitors the five mountain ranges that can be seen from his place north of Bozeman, he says, "You can see there's a lot of music that needs to be written - without leaving home."

"With the gift of speed," he adds, "I could possibly consider Wyoming and Idaho."

Weber has played with the String Orchestra of the Rockies and the Yellowstone Chamber Players, and he has several television appearances to his credit. He jokes that he is "on the edge of being discovered - along with about 10,000 other guitarists."

"People have a hard time believing that someone can write 'new' classical music," he says. "I don't know about financially, but spiritually, I'm sitting on an absolute gold mine."

Stuart Weber is grateful to have found "an instrument that will challenge me for the rest of my life," he says, adding that "with my last breath I'll be thinking about the guitar."

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