Jorge Caballero: Concerts, Competitions and Clapton

by Julia Crowe
March 2004

Jorge Caballero was born in 1977 in Lima, Peru. He began his musical studies at the National Conservatory in Lima as a student of Oscar Zamora and has won first prize at the Peruvian Conservatory Competition, XXVI International Competition “Luis Sigall” in Chile, and at the First Latin American Guitar Competition in Montevideo, Uruguay. At age 19 he was the youngest and first guitarist to ever win the prestigious Walter Naumburg International Competition, held in New York. He holds both a bachelors and masters degree in guitar performance from The Manhattan School of Music, where he studied with David Starobin. Mr. Caballero has performed concert tours in New York (Alice Tully Hall), Washington, D.C. (The Library of Congress), Las Vegas, Pittsburgh, Chicago, Boston and Cincinnati. Mostly recently, he performed for the Rose Augustine Memorial Concert at the Americas Society in New York.

* * * * *

When I caught up with him, he had just finished playing a concert for South American exchange school students in the business program at Fordham University. Holding a collapsible guitarist’s footstool in one hand, he steps outside with just a light jacket, no hat or gloves. If he feels cold, he does not show it. It is 7:30 in the evening and other pedestrians are emitting short puffs of breath into the frigid January air as they hurry by with wind-stung noses and teary eyes.

“I played a program of mixed pieces, the kind you’d hear on any John Williams album,” Jorge starts off. “They were good listeners. Normally I would only expect that kind of attention level from music students.”

When asked where his guitar is, Jorge tells me he borrowed one. “It really wasn’t a concert in the true sense of a concert. A friend lent it to me. I look at it this way, the burden is not on the instrument — it’s on me and my ability to play it. The only trouble I have personally about borrowing a guitar is if its action is high.”

When first starting out, Jorge listened to early recordings of Manuel Barrueco, Julian Bream, Eduardo Fernandez and Kazuhito Yamashita.

“I made a conscious decision between the ages of 13 and 14 to take my guitar playing seriously. I did this by listening to records, reading Carlevaro’s studies and by watching my father play. I am always thinking of technique in terms of touch, angle and attack and the ability to make different kinds of sound by shifting my hands.

“I learn best through listening and managed to come away from my study with a hybrid of ideas instead of copying anyone’s style. The most important thing young students can learn is a general understanding of the logic of the instrument, which is what makes the guitar so difficult. The idea is to eventually learn the proper movement of the fingers in both the right and left hands and along the fretboard. You want to develop both an economy of motion and democratic movement of the fingers.”

In putting together a concert, Jorge chooses from theme-based programs, historical period programs that cover pieces from different musical eras, or one very long piece that happens to hold his current interest. He considers theme-based programs to be the easiest because they are more of a showcase of what he can do. “I focus on the changes in the sound aesthetic for a specific music period or even a single piece,” he says. “For instance, I use a light, thin sound for a Renaissance piece while my touch and attack will differ for a Baroque era or Latin American one.”

A friend of his mother’s bought him a guitar when he was 10 years old, a 20-dollar Peruvian guitar called a Falcon. “I played Bach’s Bouree in E minor from the lute suite on it right away because I was already familiar with how to play on my father’s guitar.” At age 15, he picked up a Contreras study model, which got him through the rest of his teen years.

“I finally got rid of the Falcon last year,” he says.

Jorge had heard competitions were a good way of developing one’s career as a guitarist so he first entered a competition in Uruguay in ’91, which he won. Then he entered the Guitar Competition Vina del Mar in Chile in 1993, when he was 17 years old. “Physically, I was not feeling well and my emotional state was not there for this one. I almost gave up while playing. My thought was, the emotional burden of that situation was greater than the desire I had for playing.”

The Naumburg Competition of 1996 was no less stressful. While practicing in his apartment, the bridge of Jorge’s childhood guitar, the Falcon, abruptly snapped off right in front of him. He broke a nail that same week and notes he has never lost a fingernail before in his entire career, before and after this event. “If I believed in superstitions, these things might have thrown me.

“The reason I entered the Naumburg Competition was to face down my fear. Any player knows there are certain measures within pieces that present challenges and if you are to overcome them, you must face them head on. For me, the challenge was, can I get through a competition? To face your enemy is to be on top of the battle. Facing difficulties is a way of overcoming them. So during the Naumburg competition, which was very anxiety-provoking, I told myself either I could fight this or not. If I gave myself a chance, then maybe I will advance to the next round. If I don’t do this, then I am not giving myself that chance. This was my means of self-redemption.

“There came a point, during the finals, when I walked down the street and seriously considered not going back.”

Jorge used his concentration to carry him past the anxiety. “I realized my heart was beating faster than I was playing so I broke down the rhythms of the music inside my head, thinking of how I would play them. In essence, thinking about the music and its structure helped me get through the faster passages.” The piece he is speaking of, which won him first place in the competition, is Elliott Carter’s Changes.

“I have played better at other competitions but did not win them. I’ve since sworn off competitions,” he says, adding, “If you want to win something, you obviously need to be in a competition. However, musical gains are not measured by their intrinsic value. To do that would be an attempt to give a concrete purpose to art, which is impossible in practical terms.

“I believe the most important thing about playing is the GAME of playing. There are so many ways to play a piece and if you run into someone who argues that a piece should be played this way or that way, you can let yourself be cut to the core. You’ve got to remember, you are not what you play.”

Whether faced with a competition or the usual pre-performance jitters, Jorge believes it’s best to enter the situation prepared. “There is always going to be a distraction, whether it’s your own stress or something else.

“During the Naumburg competition, one of the security guards had fallen asleep. He started snoring loudly, and as he sagged in his seat, a pocketful of loose coins came tumbling out onto the floor. Fortunately, I was playing pieces I liked so I was just able to observe all this while playing and not let it affect me.”

Jorge has been teaching at Luthier Music Corp. for a little over a year. He purchased a John Price guitar from the shop and met Luthier Music Corp. president Tony Acosta, who was looking for a teacher at the time. Given the spare moment, sometimes they will accompany each other on the guitar with popular Peruvian music. Of legendary guitarist Jorge Morel, he says, “If you look at the trajectory of [Morel’s] career, that he still remains a humble man and is performing well into his 70s, I find very inspiring.

“What I enjoy most about playing is the process of telling a story through the music. It is the process of creation or recreation — developing the shape of a piece. There is a great amount of responsibility that goes along with this process. It’s a given, not something I particularly enjoy. And I would have to say, maybe because of this responsibility factor, listening comes easier to me. I enjoy recognizing the pitch and interesting connectedness of sounds I hear around me on an every day level. After a long day, I tend to tune out, though, because otherwise I will become too saturated.”

When asked if he composes, Jorge answers no, with a hint of amusement. “When creating music, you are identified by what you create. When playing music, you are recreating and doing so refers to the performer. I find it is much easier to recreate because you are able to protect yourself and maintain your privacy.”

At this point in the interview, Jorge’s cell phone rings a jangly country tune. He explains that his choice in ringer tones is one that he and his wife, Alice, a cellist, came up with during a trip to North Carolina. “I play lots of other music. I love ’70s music and guitarists like Eric Clapton. I know the tunes but can’t name them for you or who wrote them. The other day I caught the ’79 Muppets Rainbow Connection song, listened to it and figured it out.”

Jorge Caballero will be performing a program of selected works by Bach, Ginastera and Peruvian composers on Thursday, March 11, 2004 at 6:30 p.m. in Washington, D.C. in the Andrés Bello Auditorium of the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB Bank), 1300 New York Avenue, NW, Washington DC. Admission is free and open to the public (photo ID required).

Caballero will also be one of the featured performers on the NYCCGS Tribute to Jorge Morel.