Electric guitarist D.J. Sparr mixes things up at The Cabrillo Festival
Imagine a musician showing up to a symphony rehearsal with a Marshall amplifier in tow, and an electric guitar strapped to his back—the string players brace themselves, the violist covers her ears. It’s hard to be a rocker in a classical environment—but it’s just another day in the life of D.J. Sparr.
The guitarist/composer loves a good riff, but he also has a doctorate in composition and is well-versed in symphony rehearsal etiquette. After all, no classically-trained musician wants to be blown off stage by a guy who sounds like he belongs at Lollapalooza.
From outside Chautauqua Auditorium in Boulder, Colo., Sparr reflects, “You have to know how to adjust your volume, and it sounds silly, but there aren’t many electric guitarists who could come to a symphonic rehearsal and know how to deal with that—outside a couple of guys in New York, Chicago and LA.”
While the rest of the orchestra is studying music notes, contemplating the tone and sound delivery, and adjusting their bows—Sparr slams the Bigsby vibrato bar on his handmade Finnish JHS Rocktor: a Les Paul Double Cut that features three Lindy Fralin humbuckers and custom wiring.
It was early in Sparr’s life that he attended his first big arena concert, AC/DC. “I grew up with the hair bands,” says the musician, who eventually became enamored with Van Halen. But, after realizing that classical music would afford him opportunities as a musician that he could never have on the bar circuit, Sparr spent the next 15 years working toward degrees and receiving accolades for his work.
“When I play the guitar in front of people at the symphony, I’m fulfilling every kid’s dream of playing for a couple thousand people,” he says. “When you’re younger, you think that it wouldn’t be hard to fulfill that dream.”
The young maestro says he believes he wouldn’t be where he is today without the guidance of composer Michael Daugherty, whom he studied with in graduate school. Considered a maverick in American concert music, Daugherty was the perfect mentor to Sparr’s wild side. “When I went to the University of Michigan and studied with Michael Daugherty, I began thinking that I liked the idea of the old guy composers: Beethoven, Rachmaninoff and Mozart,” he says. “Paganini is a great example because he was kind of crazy like a rock guitarist.” And like the legendary “old guys,” Sparr splits his time between his two loves: playing and composing.
These days, it is not unusual to see rock icons partner up with a symphony—from Metallica to the Grateful Dead—and Sparr has not given up the dream of working with one his heroes. “I’m writing a guitar concerto for myself,” he says. “I told the executive director at the California Symphony, Walter Collins, we should try and see if Eddie Van Halen will do it.”
Named the next Young American Composer-in-Residence with the California Symphony, Sparr’s work has been performed across the country and overseas with the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Band. Next week, he heads to Santa Cruz for two performances as part of The Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music.
On Thursday, August 11, Sparr shares the stage with Concertmaster Justin Bruns and members of the Cabrillo Festival Orchestra, for “Music in the Mountains,” an intimate redwoods performance in Nestldown, Los Gatos. Just two days later, on Saturday, August 13, he will lend his guitar expertise to the west coast premiere of his mentor Daugherty’s work, “Gee’s Bend” at the Santa Cruz Civic Auditorium.
Sparr is confident that attendees at both performances will enjoy his genre-bending classical-rock fusion. After all, “with classical players now, everyone grew up going to rock concerts,” he says. “Even the older generation is used to hearing rock integrated into pop concerts.”
D.J. Sparr plays at 6:30 p.m. Thursday, Aug. 11, at Nestldown, 22420 Old Santa Cruz Hwy, Los Gatos. $150. He also plays at 8 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 13, at Santa Cruz Civic Auditorium, 307 Church St., Santa Cruz. $32-50. For tickets, call 420-5260 or visit santacruztickets.com.