Russ De Angelo discovered classical guitar while channel surfing one night in 1980, when he caught a glimpse of "this big, heavy-set guy with these big stubby fingers" playing guitar at the White House. "I heard this incredible sound, and I said, 'Oh, what is that?'" recalled De Angelo, director of La Guitarra California Festival in San Luis Obispo. "I was just drawn to it immediately."
"That," as De Angelo later discovered, was Spanish classical guitarist Andrés Segovia, considered one of the undisputed masters of the genre. It was Segovia who popularized modern classical guitar in the 1920s, bringing an instrument rooted in the Renaissance and baroque periods into the 20th century.
"He wanted to make the guitar a serious instrument," Pasadena composer/guitarist Andrew York explained, adding that Segovia "really set the stage" for those who followed, including Julian Bream, Christopher Parkening and John Williams. Their successors, including Juan Manuel Barco and David Russell, inspired another generation of guitarists in turn.
Next month, a new crop of classical guitar enthusiasts will come to La Guitarra California Festival. The festival, which runs September 6 through 8 at the Performing Arts Center in San Luis Obispo, features an art show, lectures, workshops and performances by the likes of York, Paraguayan guitarist Berta Rojas and the Los Angeles Guitar Quartet.
De Angelo emphasized the importance of witnessing classical guitar in concert, as opposed to listening to a recording. "You could listen to Berta or any of these other guys until you're sick, and you won't get the same (experience) as seeing them live," he said. "There's a connection, there's an understanding that happens. You can actually see the dedication that it takes to play this instrument."
La Guitarra California Festival began life in the early 1980s as Portraits of Music, an annual one-day festival at Cuesta College in San Luis Obispo that became part of the Guitar Foundation of America's performance circuit in the late '90s. In 1999, organizers re-imagined the event as a three-day, biennial classical guitar festival, a decision that coincided with a surge of interest in the instrument, De Angelo said.
"The reason we have this affinity is the sound of classical guitar," he said, produced by fingers -- and, occasionally, fingernails -- coming in contact with nylon strings. "The nylon gives this warmth that steel strings can't give. There's a whole different sound, a whole different feeling."
With classical guitar, he added, "You have six strings, eight fingers, and infinite combinations."
Cuesta College music teacher Reed Gilchrist took over from original festival director John Grimes in 2001. When Gilchrist passed away shortly after the 2003 festival, De Angelo took over as director in January 2004.
"Reed had left a big vacuum for promoting classical guitar. No one person could replace Reed, but I remember telling the group that all together we could pull this off," De Angelo said. "I didn't want to just let it die."
According to De Angelo, those early Cuesta College concerts were held in a conference room with 150 folding chairs, a small rented stage and "no sound (system) to speak of." Vendors displayed their wares in the school's cafeteria.
"I realized we had outgrown the facilities at Cuesta," De Angelo said, so the festival moved to Allan Hancock College in Santa Maria for two years - 2007 and 2009 - before finding its permanent home at the Performing Arts Center in 2011.
About 2,000 people are expected to attend La Guitarra California Festival this year. "The festival really fits with the vibe of San Luis Obispo, with the music (scene) being so alive," De Angelo said. "This is a truly world-class event, and it's grown into the No. 1 classical guitar festival in America..."
Pasadena guitarist Scott Tennant said the festival has succeeded partially because of its location. "There have been a lot of different guitar festivals and gatherings over the years, but the fact that it's in the Central Coast of California ... adds to the desirability," he said.
Two Los Angeles-area acts -- Martha Masters and the Los Angeles Guitar Quartet -- kick off the festival on Sept. 6, while York, French guitarist Thibault Cauvin, Los Angeles guitarist Adam del Monte and Russian-Belgian guitar duo Grisha Goryachev and Jerome Mouffe perform on the following day. (There's also a free outdoor concert by the Fullerton Guitar Orchestra.)
The festival closes Sept. 8 with concerts featuring Rojas, Cleveland guitarist Jason Vieaux and the Brasil Guitar Duo. Although De Angelo makes an effort to bring in new artists every time, he said the festival does enjoy repeat visitors, including Rojas, Spanish guitarist Pepe Romero and Croatian guitarist Ana Vidovic.
In fact, La Guitarra California Festival represents a reunion for York and the Los Angeles Guitar Quartet. He spent 19 years with the Grammy Award-winning group, which Tennant and bandmate Bill Kanengiser helped found in 1980 as students at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles.
"The running joke is it's the world's longest ongoing homework assignment," quipped Tennant, who is on the facilities of USC's Thornton School of Music and the Pasadena Conservatory of Music.
In addition to concerts, the festival features an auction, a vendor fair with about 30 luthiers, and educational events -- namely, a lecture by Cal Poly music professor Craig Russell and master classes conducted by del Monte, Kanengiser, Rojas, Tennant and York. The cost to observe a class has remained $10 since 1999, thanks to the Gerry & Peggy Peterson La Guitarra Education Fund.
New to the festival this year is the Guitar Art Display, which features about 30 pieces ranging from collage-covered ukuleles to an electric guitar strung with barbed wire. "It's important to have another facet to the festival," explained Denise Leader Stoeber, programming/development specialist for Cal Poly Arts, noting that the exhibition replaces the Jim Forderer Collection of Rare and Historic Guitars, a regular feature at La Guitarra California Festival since 1999.
The Guitar Art Display's featured artist is Paso Robles sculptor Dale Evers, whose monumental "Wings of Legend" statue was unveiled at Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino in Las Vegas in January. Other Central Coast participants include Katherine and Robert Bender, Kristopher Doe, Jim Gonzales, David Norton, Meryl Perloff, Kathi Rippe and Nancy Vest.
In selecting the artists, Stoeber said she looked for good-quality, professional work that fit the guitar theme. "The art has to be of a similar caliber to the musicians," she said.
Of course, York said, a performer is only as good as his audience.
"If you have a really wonderful player and someone who's receptive to subtlety and beauty, that's a good match," he said. "I don't want to convert (people). All I want to do is offer something that is beautiful and reach and communicate it and share it. That's it."