Stephen Tunstall, classical guitarist

April 20, 2009 at 7:47 pm (Local interest (Baltimore-Washington), Music)

Stephen Tunstall Last night I had the pleasure of attending a performance of classical guitar music at the East Columbia Branch of the Howard County Library. The concert took place after the library’s open hours, so the audience was seated in the branch itself rather than in the meeting room. This proved to be an ideal setting, both spacious and intimate. Despite  the rainy weather, the light coming in though the many windows was warm and welcoming.

A graduate of Baltimore’s famed Peabody Conservatory, Stephen Tunstall is an extremely accomplished musician. Last night’s program included works by Fernando Sor, Leo Brouwer, Heitor Villa-Lobos, Agustin Barrios, and Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco.Tunstall enlivened the proceedings by providing some background on these composers. He told a particularly poignant story about Agustin Barrios. Barrios was from Paraguay, but he lived in El Salvador for a time and taught music there.  According to Barrios’s students, a woman used to come to the house each day begging for alms. This prompted Barrios to compose  “Alms for the Love of God” (Una Limosna por el Amor de Dios), one of the selection that Stephen played for us last night.

Tunstall’s playing  was warmly applauded by an enthusiastic audience and was followed by a question and answer  session that proved exceptionally enlightening. One audience member asked why there are not more concerts of classical guitar music. Tunstall explained that it’s been quite a few years since the discipline had produced  a “rock star” on the order of magnitude of Andre Segovia. Segovia, a genuine apostle for the instrument, was in his day able to fill a concert hall. Few other than John Williams – the guitarist, not the composer – command that kind of following today.

Tunstall went on to speak of the marginalizing of classical music in general in contemporary American culture. Personally, this is something I haven’t worried much about since  my brother gave me the following advice regarding our mutual love of classical music: “Think of it as an exclusive club, and be glad you’re in it!” Unfortunately, in these days of financially stressed arts organization, that statement seems somehow inadequate.

There were more questions from Tunstall’s enthusiastic and inquisitive listeners. Someone asked if there were a guitar equivalent of a Stradivarius violin. Stephen responded that there was not, as the instrument is something of a work in progress. Apparently, efforts are constantly under way to increase the instrument’s sound output without compromising tonal excellence (and without, needless to say, resorting to amplification). He added, to the surprise of all of us, that Stradivarius also made guitars.

I asked Stephen if he had ever had the chance to be the soloist in the performance of a guitar concerto. He replied in the negative, saying that he would certainly welcome such an opportunity. In asking that question, I had in mind Joaquin Rodrigo’s Concierto de Aranjuez. I first heard this work in a live performance in the late 1970’s in Madison, Wisconsin. The featured artist was (the exceedingly handsome) Angel Romero, scion of  Spain’s great musical family. By the time that this lovely, unabashedly romantic piece had reached its conclusion, I think just about every woman in the audience had  fallen in love with this soloist!

Here is the concerto’s famous second movement. Daniel Barenboim conducts the Berlin Philharmonic; the soloist is John Williams:


Be sure to visit Stephen Tunstall’s website, where sound files are available. In an era in which  “performers” possessed of both overweening narcissism and little or no talent are a frequent and annoying presence in public life,  Stephen Tunstall, a self-effacing, genuinely gifted artist, was a very welcome breath of fresh air!


When introducing the pieces by Villa-Lobos, Stephen mentioned that this composer’s most famous work, in this country at least, is the Bachianas Brasileiras No.5 for cellos and soprano. This is an exotic and astonishing vocal work. Here it is, sung by the legendary Brazilian soprano Bidu Sayao:

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