Concert With A Catch
by Andrew Scully, December 28, 2016
Brad Richter, Classical Guitarist
Preston Hall, Mendocino
I took a journey last night. I pulled on my 4th layer of clothing and prepared to buck into the nearly horizontal rain of a dark and stormy Mendocino night. As I stepped out into the darkness that seemed crowded by the howling winds, and the even darker storm clouds concentrating at that very moment in the National Capital, I wondered for a moment if it might be better to drive.
But I walked. Across the wet grass, saturated and oozing from the avalanche of water that had fallen, I crossed the familiar gravel near the fire station, then Little Lake, the Coast highway, and the dark beyond. Then the lights of the village. No one else out it seemed. And I walked hurriedly, late now, to the church.
I came thru a new way, unfamiliar to me, following a path that connected gavel walkways and came out into...the church courtyard. The radiant white spire, familiar to many, was utterly dark.
Preston Hall, however was not dark. As I entered, rustling with soaked through outer-jacket, I was utterly transported. It was warm, and lit only by small white Christmas lights — a few strands twisted about the beams of the ceiling. But these were enough. There were several images hung on the large windows in the hall — they were Nativity Scenes from the Christian story of the birth of Jesus. But these were not the old musty things. These seemed new and beatifically, and beautifully re-imagined.
The guitarist was seated in front of one of the translucent tapestry's, which depicted a woman in a pose of thanksgiving and happiness, arms reaching for the sky in beautifully muted hues. It seemed to me a universal image of joy. And it shimmered in the light.
The guitar player sat on a stool, and the held the guitar on his lap with the neck fairly upright, so that his left hand, fingering the notes, was very near his left ear. Brad Richter was well into a piece when I came into the space, and the group of people seated about him on padded folding chairs was listening in rapt silence. I was intensely aware of how loud my entry had been. I was certain that my breathing was too loud, that they would be able to hear my blinking as I tried to stand utterly still.
But of course they could not, because they were absorbed in the music, and focused on the guitarist and their own thoughts. This was delicate music, subtle. So intricate and detailed but so soft. Classical guitar, it seems.
Our musical interpreter for this evening was Brad Richter, He is tall and pleasant looking, with a pony tail, and he is surprisingly, from Oklahoma. I have seen many musical performances. The range and ability of human talent is truly staggering. Yet, Richter's performance was something of a phenomenon. He was obviously producing these notes — many, many notes, with his two hands and only these hands. I could observe this. But I could not, even though I was watching him do it, explain how he did it.
I watched closely, yet I could not discern how he was able to execute all of those notes. 164th notes, and perhaps beyond. I do not know. But Brad Richter must have been plucking very very rapidly indeed, certainly with eight, but likely all ten fingers, to produce those notes. Yet. His hands — and the tops of his fingers seemed hardly to move at all. I could sense movement of his hands on the instrument. But he seemed able to conceal the very tips of his fingers — doing 90% of the work, I imagine, with the top of his hands. Hence phenomenon.
Brad Richter has a gift and he has a few missions. One is to learn, perform and motivate, and most importantly to seek out new people that should play the instrument. Another is the notion that guitar instruction deserves equal footing and rigor as other orchestral instruments because it is one.
He has spent several years “on tour” across North America, tour, performing recitals. The tours enable his cultivation and mentoring of promising young guitarists across the hinterlands and metro areas alike. His particular interest seems to be in finding and connecting with young people — often from harsh backgrounds, who otherwise never might have played. Kids that opportunity has passed by.
Richter transitioned his music with stories. Along his travels he heard about and sought out a young man said to have promise on the Comanche reservation in Oklahoma, a boy named Sherwood. Richter came to know and mentor the boy in guitar, and indeed Sherwood from the Comanche Nation became a gifted guitarist. A favorite fishing spot for Sherwood was a place called Marble Falls, in Oklahoma. Sherwood and Richter fished there several times. Richter matter of factly told us that Sherwood, this young man of exceptional talent and promise, “passed away at 24”. Further verbal detail was not forthcoming. But then Richter played Marble Falls on the guitar. He said it reminded him of Sherwood when he played it. I think it reminded everyone there of Sherwood.
Richter used his guitar to tell other stories. The guitar, through Richter, told a Comanche story — familiar in many cultures - of a grief-stricken Comanche Chief's voyage to the land of the dead. Of his mighty effort — all the strength that a warrior king could muster — to bring his daughter, killed by a rattlesnake bite, back from that dark and foreboding place. The guitar told the story. Wardrums and snake rattles, the girls ascent toward the light, and her quickening heartbeat. And then.
He played the sounds made by a family grandfather clock, not just the stoke of the bells but also the strange and mysterious sounds that the clock made. The creaking and ratcheting that could be heard as the mechanical gears, the pulleys and sprockets, executed the bell sequence.
The sounds and music that he was able to make vividly brought back to my mind some of my most cherished childhood memories. It was quite amazing to me that sitting in Preston Hall, on a cold and wet December night, Richter and his guitar hearkened back to my mind boyhood reveries more than fifty years past. Of nights falling to sleep on the floor of my Grandmother's simple home, warm and utterly safe, listening to the fire crackling, and to the soothing music of the Grandfather Clock.
But other sounds of the guitar reminded me that my Grandmother's clock produced many noises in addition to the familiar tick-tock. Quite like the clock, Richter's guitar captured the stately and imposing, and faintly mysterious person, of my Grandmother Alice Scully.
Richter is able to create all these sounds using very simple objects, toothpicks and clothespins, and other such. But this is not the “cheater bar” placed upon the neck of the instrument and used by most modern guitarists. Instead, Richter uses these small tools to create music. They are active participants in the performance, not passive.
He told a couple of amusing stories:
Q: How do you get A flat Minor?
A: You drop a piano down a mine shaft.
Q: How do you get A flat Major?
A: You run over him with a tank.
This was, as Richter helpfully explained for this distinctly pacific crowd on the Pacific, “a military joke”.
The music lifted me out of the wet sodden fields into mid-19th Century Spain, by means of a guitar piece heavily influenced by North African Moorish culture. And I could hear it. In the undulating waves of the warm sand that spread under my feet, in the fair skies and seas of that lovely land. A much simpler time, perhaps less threatening. The music did this.
All of this would have been more than enough. But there was one other element to the evening, an unexpected twist.
Well it's very simple, quite like the story if Johnny Appleseed of olden days. Richter founded a program called Lead Guitar. Lead Guitar is how Richter and his cohort continue their work and joy — to keep finding and inspiring those Sherwoods. The local partnership is established with the Mendocino School District mendocinousd.org/District/Schools and is facilitated by the Presbyterian Church in the village firstname.lastname@example.org.
This work must continue. Money is needed to fund a matching grant for a middle school program of structured, fun learning.
This money must be raised, and it is out there, in these bucolic hills and hinterlands of Mendocino county and hereabouts. Donations should be made prior to January. Inquiry should be directed to the MUSD or the Church.
That is why the music is so important. Because for a moment, indeed for what seemed a very long time, I was not in the middle of a dark and stormy night in Mendocino. For that moment, the music granted me a reprieve even from the madness and the scrambling and the darkness concentrating in the national capital.
No. Those thoughts were far from my mind as I listened to Brad Richter. For what seemed a long time, sitting in Preston Hall in the bleak midwinter, I was long ago, in the part of Spain influenced by the warm currents and dry spicy air of the Mediterranean sea. Southern Spain in the 1800's, flavored and by the Moorish people of North Africa. I could hear the guitar. The sun was warm on my face. And I was breathing, very deeply.
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(Andrew Scully lives in Mendocino.)