David Russell: A Guitarist’s Guitarist

By Pasquale Bianculli

“My congratulations on your musicality and guitaristic technique”

– Andres Segovia, after hearing a concert by David Russell in London

David Russell is one of the very few classical players that can be called a guitarist’s guitarist. His concerts attract some of the largest audiences world-wide, drawn by his impeccable technique and brilliant interpretations of music from the Italian, Scarlatti, to the Irish, O’Carolan; from the Renaissance, through the old 19th century Spanish warhorses of Albeniz and Granados, to music composed for him by his friends, Sergio Assad, Carlo Domeniconi and Ben Verdery. His audience includes not only his fans, but many professional guitarists and students who seem to be in agreement with this quote from the Skidmore News (April 11, 2012) on David’s performance at the College, “And far from being merely a flashy display of virtuosity, Russell’s dexterity found its match only in the sincerely wrought emotion of the performance.”

Among his numerous honors, Russell was named a Fellow of the Royal Academy of Music in London in 1997. In 2004, he won a Grammy Award for best instrumental soloist in classical music for his CD Aire Latino. In 2009, Russell was inducted as an honorary member of “Amigos de la Guitarra,” the oldest guitar society in Spain. With his wife, María Jesús Rodriguez, they formed their own NGO (Non-Government Organization, “ONGD DAVID RUSSELL Y MARÍA JESÚS” which carries on charitable work in Africa and India.

Recently, Guitar Connoisseur sat down (albeit on different continents!) with the renowned artist, and via email, spoke about the guitar, the music he chooses to play and the work of his charitable NGO.  What emerges from the interview is a portrait of a guitarist with traditional tastes in music making, a musician who balances true passion for the guitar with pastimes such as golf, marathon running and photography, and a humanitarian unafraid to lend a helping hand.

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GC: I have known and enjoyed your playing for many years. After reading through your website, the past interviews and articles about you, I see that you have many interests in which you participate at a very high level. Music and golf, for instance, have flourished side by side during your career as a performer. Can you compare the “Inner Game” of golf to the “Inner Game” of playing the guitar? What about these two activities is similar (or different) for you?

DR: For me they are totally different. My golf playing is complete escapism. I enjoy my time playing with my friends. I try to play as well as I can, but I really don’t care that much. Guitar playing, on the other hand, is my profession and I care very much about everything I do in that field. I have a few other passions or hobbies: one of them is photography and the other is simply running. I devote some of my time to these activities, but, as with golf, they are pastimes.

GC: At last count your discography contains 16 recordings for the TELARC label…quite an accomplishment! Your playing, both technically and musically, your style and warm tone reflect a love and passion for the traditional repertoire of classical guitar. The choices you have made regarding the music you play differs markedly from many players who feel that “new is better” and being “first” with a new work is the preferable path. What draws you to a particular piece: the period, the composer, or simply the work itself?

DR: All of the above. It is really a combination of everything. Of course it is fun to be the first to record a new piece, but the choice of repertoire is decided in combination with the record company.

GC: Speaking of new pieces, can you tell us what living composers’ music mostly attract your attention and why?

DR: I especially enjoy playing pieces written by friends, as that gives an extra dimension to the music and to my interpretation of it, as I have a personal connection with the composer.

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GC: In one interview you made a comparison between computers and playing the guitar. I thought it illustrated quite well the difference between practicing and playing. If I can paraphrase here, you likened practicing a piece to being INPUT and performing a piece to OUTPUT. Why the distinction?

DR: I try hard to separate the two, because very often we practice while performing and then while we perform, we are thinking about how we should do it, when it should be the other way around. At least for me it works very well if I can practice a piece during a period of time and then perform it, even if it is only for myself. Once you are performing a piece of music, it cannot stop. It has to have continuity and the only important thing is the future, what is about to come. While you are practicing a piece, the ability to analyze what you have just done, correct the wrong things and reinforce the good ones, it is the best way in my opinion.

GC: When did you form “ONGD DAVID RUSSELL Y MARÍA JESÚS”, the NGO (Non-Governmental Organization)?

DR: My wife and I started this 6 or 7 years ago. After collaborating with other people, we decided it was better to have our own organization.

GC: Why another charitable organization? Were there not any organizations that addressed the particular needs of the communities you work with?

DR: We felt we wanted to be very specific and direct with our efforts. Originally we started collaborating with several people we knew who were missionaries in Africa and we helped in their communities by building wells. Of course the larger organizations are very important, especially for bigger projects. Smaller NGOs, like ours, have no overhead. Every single Euro (€) goes directly to the project and we felt we wanted to have a more direct involvement. It gives us great satisfaction to be able to do it in this way.

GC: How did you become involved with the communities in Africa and India that are touched by your charitable work?

DR: All our projects in Africa have to do directly with water, whereas our Indian projects are all to do with education. We have financed the building of four schools in the South of India and we are involved in several schools in the North, especially one in Gujarat, where most of the children are handicapped, and we fully support this school.

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GC: How can readers help?

DR: In our webpage there is a link to the NGO with all the information needed to whoever wants to contribute. One thing we want to make clear is that every penny we receive goes directly to the projects.

GC: Shifting back to the guitar I would like to ask you some quick questions regarding some of your preferences as a professional player:

First, guitar tops: cedar or spruce?

DR: Now cedar.

GC: Strings: composites or nylon?

DR: Nylon

GC: To amplify or not to amplify?

DR: No amplification for solo guitar concerts.

GC: Technique: rest stroke: use it or avoid it?

DR: Use it when it sounds good.

GC: Your best “go to” warm-up exercise?

DR: Parts of scales and slurs.

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GC: Regarding your recording style, what is your preference: record your latest concert pieces first, then take them on the road performing them in your concerts, or concertize first with new music before recording?

DR: My preference would be to concertize first and record afterwards, but it is often the other way round, by necessity.

GC: Do you have a favorite concert venue? Where is it located?

DR: For sentimental reasons, the Wigmore Hall in London.

GC: What new recordings, performances, etc., can your fans look forward to in the coming year? 

DR: I have numerous ideas for a new recording, but I still need to decide together with the record company for the new CD.

GC: It is the year 2022, exactly ten years from now. Where is David Russell?

DR: In the year 2022 I hope I can maintain my single digit handicap in golf, continue to run the odd marathon and still be able to play the Chaconne by Bach.

For more information on David Russell visit his website: http://www.davidrussellguitar.com/

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