A History of The Baltimore Classical Guitar Society
Well-known in the classical guitar world as a society that presents great artists each concert season, The Baltimore Classical Guitar Society is actually a multi-faceted organization. Its most public face is the annual concert series that features top guitarists, and its many other activities vary its mode of fulfilling its mission of “fostering the awareness and appreciation of the classical guitar.” Through its several incarnations, the BCGS has aimed to present the finest performers at the same time that it has never lost sight of its diverse general audience or its supporters among amateur and student guitarists. Since November 30, 1987, the date of the Articles of Association that mark its official founding, the BCGS has evolved into a professionally run organization which has managed to remain true to its home-grown roots.
A Grassroots Beginning
Like many other guitar societies, the BCGS began as a small group of amateur players who would get together once a month in each other’s homes. Back in 1985, the president of this informal gathering was Lynn Steele, and the group’s newsletter producer was Matt Bieneman. Members would play for each other and give talks and demonstrations. William Feasley performed at the society’s very first concert, which was held at Mount Vernon Place United Methodist Church, and Ricardo Cobo, who won the GFA competition in 1987, played there at a subsequent concert. In the spring of 1989, Bill Feasley and Matt Bieneman organized three concerts at the Charlestown Chapel.
After Matt Bieneman let it be known that he could no longer keep the society running by himself, a group of five got together to revive what he had begun. In June 1990, this group voted titles for themselves: Mike Kirkpatrick, President; Robert Vierschilling, Secretary; Kara Koppanyi, Treasurer; Matt Gould, Concert Chairman; Doug Bruns, Newsletter Editor. Richard Saynuk, who had been treasurer, gave the group the $100 that was the entire treasury.
Early concerts presented by the reorganized young BCGS showed a progression building on experience and good will. The very first of these concerts, featuring the duo of Eve Weiss and Lynn Demlin, drew all of eighteen people to Lovely Lane Church. In the spring of 1991, a concert presenting Stephen Robinson got pre-concert coverage in The Sun and drew a larger audience. That fall, the duo of Julian Gray and Ronald Pearl, always great supporters of the society, performed for the BCGS for the second time without a fee, giving the group the capital to hire Dennis Koster. The success of Koster’s flamenco/classical recital led to the decision to feature Roberto Aussel at the Walters Art Gallery, beginning the society’s successful partnership with the Walters at the initiative of Dave Hepple, then concert committee chairman. The Aussel concert attendance of 160, a major success at the time, was a factor in the decision to have a subscription series the following season.
A Strong Foundation
From 1990-1994, as president of the reorganized early BCGS, Mike Kirkpatrick oversaw a number of practices and activities that laid the foundation for the society that exists today. Open recitals began, at first organized by Jeff Covey and later run by George Pleat, who makes them his responsibility to this day. Master classes were sponsored by the society. The society was granted non-profit status and also began receiving city and state grant support, applied for each year by Jim Fortier and Vivia Chang. The revived concert series became a subscription series at the Walters Art Gallery, advertised through announcements on WBJC and through bulk mailings. Community outreach was particularly strong during Mike’s administration. Mike organized recitals for Baltimore County schools, between 70 and 95 students attending each of nine recitals performed by Stephen Turley. Also in Mike’s administration, the trio of Jim Fortier, Kara Koppanyi, and Vivia Chang performed for senior citizens in over twenty locations. Robert Vierschilling performed outreach recitals as well.
Today, Mike continues to support the society in many ways. Because his home address remains the mailing address for the BCGS, he still sorts and forwards the mail, and he also receives phone messages on the guitar society answering machine located at his home. He secured the use of his church, Hope Presbyterian, for the open recitals, which occasionally feature his young students as well as prizes from his shop. Over the years, Mike Kirkpatrick has become a BCGS symbol of continuity and support.
From 1994 to 1999, through the presidencies of Jim Fortier and Mike Oliver, the society’s reputation grew. The organization presented nationally and internationally known guitarists, benefiting from its central Baltimore concert venue at the Walters, along with the Walters’ publicity. A guitar-playing engineer, Jim secured additional funding from the D’Addario Foundation and a great deal of publicity for the society following publication of a long article in The Sun: “High Note for Guitar Society.” In this article, Larry Harris states that the society reached “this level of credibility” through “determination, imagination, and an attitude of good old let’s-all-pitch-in-and-help.” Such was the attitude of Mike Oliver, a guitar-playing attorney who wandered into Mike Kirkpatrick’s guitar shop one day and wound up producing the BCGS newsletter, then working the ticket table at concerts, then serving as treasurer and president—in addition to offering free legal advice, developing the online ticket ordering system, and serving as webmaster. Both Jim and Mike are examples of the amateur guitarists who have devoted countless hours to establishing the place of the BCGS in today’s guitar world.
An e-mail from Mike Oliver shows how the road to success was, nevertheless, marked by occasional nervous hand wringing: “The first time we had the Assad Brothers, it was an all-male group of us that decided on dates, and not a one of us realized the date was actually Valentine’s Day. What men we are. As the date got closer, my wife and probably others mentioned, ‘Did you realize you scheduled this on Valentine’s Day?’ All of us who planned this were HORRIFIED. The Assads were the highest cost we had incurred to that point. A low turnout would have killed us. I was petrified. However, we had a HUGE walkup, completely selling out Notre Dame…Later we went to a big dinner after the concert, and the Assads came and were absolutely funny and great guys and made all of us feel very good. Despite all of the errors and dumb things we did, that was probably the high point of my presidency.”
The presidency of Dave Hepple (1999-2003) was marked by some rocky times but also by huge successes and some new developments that continue to enrich Baltimore’s guitar community. Since the Graham Auditorium at the Walters was undergoing renovation, the BCGS concert series moved to Catonsville Community College from 1998-2001. Because of the out-of-town location and the loss of the Walters’ publicity, audience numbers dropped and money worries ensued. However, despite the uneven financial situation that occupied Dave during much of his administration, the society sustained its respected presence on the music scene, continuing to feature fine artists and even establishing a new organization within the BCGS: When Dave asked for some fund-raising ideas, Ron Pearl suggested a guitar orchestra that he himself would direct and present in a benefit concert. That first benefit concert in December 2000, featuring the orchestra and a few local soloists, sold out the hall at Catonsville. Another personal satisfaction for Dave was the presentation of world-renowned Manuel Barrueco in the society’s concert series, thus beginning a relationship that eventually resulted in Manuel’s becoming the BCGS artistic advisor in 2003, and the presentation of such artists as Eduardo Fernandez for the first time ever in Baltimore. Finally, Dave was responsible for moving the concert series back into the city to The Baltimore Museum of Art. As concert chairman (1992-1999) and then as president, “Dave really took the society up to the next level of development,” according to Kara Koppanyi, former treasurer and secretary and one of the members who became active during the “grassroots days.”
A Place at the Top
Asgerdur Sigurdardottir was elected president in 2003, bringing with her many years of experience as Manuel Barrueco’s manager and numerous personal and professional connections in the guitar world. With the new administration came a determination to put the society on a firm financial footing. The measures that Asgerdur initiated to accomplish this explored new territory as well as expanded or formalized practices already in place. In a message to the board, Asgerdur wrote, “In close collaboration with Edwige Griffith—who has her finger on the pulse of our members—and Risa Carlson, then vice president, we developed a tiered membership program which allowed people to contribute to the society with a clear picture of what they were getting in return…Donations and season subscriptions began to come in…When our members saw that things were on a roll in the right direction, they responded with contributions…That gave us confidence to book artists that we thought would be of interest, artists that were more expensive, and, with the help of Manuel, I was able to convince the Peabody Conservatory to rent us their hall for two major concerts each season.”
With her strong organizational and public relations skills, Asgerdur has solidified the position of the BCGS as one of the most important, most well-run guitar societies in the country. The board of directors meets three times a year. With Manuel Barrueco serving as artistic advisor, the society regularly presents the world’s greatest guitarists. Because of contributions from a growing list of BCGS members and various granting institutions (the city, the state, D’Addario, the William G. Baker Memorial Fund, and Free Fall Baltimore), the society can operate with confidence each season. Pre-concert talks, usually given by Risa Carlson, enrich audience experience at each performance, and young artist recitals at An Die Musik offer the public the chance to see performers on their way up. In addition, the society has begun the BCGS Commission Award program, whereby young and talented composers are commissioned to write pieces for the BCGS to be premiered during the concert season. Thus far, the award has been given to Christopher Gainey, Matthew Cmiel, Christopher William Pierce, and Gabriela Lena Frank, whose “Inca Dances” won a 2009 Latin GRAMMY Award for Best Classical Contemporary Composition.
No history of this society would be anywhere near complete without a mention of two of its most dedicated volunteers, George Pleat and Ron Pearl. Without George, there would be no open recitals, since George secured the venue, sent out the publicity, bought the refreshments, and encouraged everyone to come out and play! His work set the foundation of the open stage for community players that Jim Cole and Vivia Chang continued for six years. Without George and his wife, Clarissa Ferraris, who would organize the volunteers that usher at the concerts, stuff the programs with flyers, hand out the programs at the door, help out at the ticket table? Who other than George would organize the annual Guitar Day celebration, coordinate the master class series? Through these and other volunteer tasks, George has made it possible for the members of the BCGS to learn, perform, and become actively involved. And without Ron Pearl, there would be no BCGS Orchestra. In addition to his teaching at Loyola College and his own performances, Ron devoted countless hours to writing, arranging, and conducting music for this non-professional ensemble, leading the group in at least two performances a year from 2000 until 2014. This ensemble of adults of varying levels of ability is ever grateful to Ron for establishing such high standards of performance and for sharing his musical knowledge, his enthusiasm, and his (mostly funny) jokes. In 2005, Ron was given the BCGS Award for Outstanding Leadership in Community Musical Enrichment. Today, the BCGS Orchestra continues to play under the expert direction of Scott Borg.
Over the Years
In its thirty-year history, the BCGS has undergone a gradual transformation. The small group of guitar enthusiasts who shared beer and some tunes in each other’s living rooms never dreamed that what they began would eventually become one of the country’s most active, most prestigious guitar societies. The first concert’s audience of eighteen would become a subject of fond reminiscence as later audiences mushroomed to 250 and 350, and even to 700 for a few concerts in special venues. Nearly all the great artists enjoyed through recordings in the early days have eventually appeared in person in Baltimore, presented by the BCGS.
In 2016-2017 alone, close to two thousand people attended BCGS concerts. Two hundred attended the free Open Stage events, where they heard performances from mostly non-professional guitarists who drove from as far away as D. C., Virginia, Pennsylvania, and the Eastern Shore. Hundreds took part in free master classes and workshops, and over 10,000 observed the collective practice session streamed on Facebook. In 2016, the Guitar Society Summit, spearheaded by BCGS President Asgerdur Sigurdardottir, was held in Baltimore and attended by representatives of fifteen guitar societies from the U S. and Canada. This latest season shows clearly that the future of the BCGS is a far brighter, more varied one than that envisioned by the circle of friends back in 1987.
Artists Presented: 1987-2017
Sergio and Odair Assad
The Aurora Quartet
Michael Bard and Cory Whitehead
Manuel Barrueco w/Cuarteto Latinoamericano
Manuel Barrueco & Beijing Guitar Duo
Beijing Guitar Duo
Paco de Malaga
Eden Stell Duo
The Falla Guitar Trio
Julian Gray/Ronald Pearl Duo
Eduardo Isaac and Daniel Binelli
Los Angeles Guitar Quartet
The Moeller Cello and Guitar Duo
Kevin and Bonnie Vigil
John Williams and John Etheridge
In their written reports, informal e-mails, and telephone conversations, the following individuals provided much of the information in this history: Matt Bieneman, George Pleat, Mike Kirkpatrick, Kara Koppanyi, Mike Oliver, and Asgerdur Sigurdardottir.In their written reports, informal e-mails, and telephone conversations, the following individuals provided much of the information in this history: Matt Bieneman, George Pleat, Mike Kirkpatrick, Kara Koppanyi, Mike Oliver, and Asgerdur Sigurdardottir.