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Italian-born classical guitarist Flavio Sala starts his career anew in the United States

Winner of multiple international competitions has relocated to Baltimore County.

One night, the internationally acclaimed classical guitarist Flavio Sala headlined a performance by a symphony orchestra at Prokofiev Concert Hall of the Philharmonic Society of Russia.

Three weeks later, he was playing at a barn in Carroll County as the opening act for a Baltimore bluegrass band.

What happened in between still has friends and family in his native Bojano, Italy — and classical guitar observers around the world — scratching their heads.

Sala, 33, the winner of several international music competitions, a veteran of 400 concerts on five continents, and a solo artist with nine CDs, is using a coveted "genius visa" to start his career anew in the United States.

The O-1 immigrant visa is granted to what U.S. Citizenship and Immigrant Services calls "Aliens of Extraordinary Ability." The government has issued as many as 12,000 per year.

Applicants must show they've won a major award in their field, provide recommendations from industry leaders and, in the case of musicians, supply discographies, music samples, proof of pending engagements and more.

With encouragement from peers as diverse as Yes guitarist Steve Howe and the musician who played guitar on "Dueling Banjos," Sala has settled in Timonium, where he spends his days and nights perfecting his wide-ranging repertoire, establishing new contacts and plotting the reinvention of his career in a land not known for its love of the chitarra classica.

One recent afternoon, he sat on a sofa in the townhouse he shares with his American manager, Ruth Perrella, and played Bach's Prelude for Cello Suite No. 1, "Are You Lonesome Tonight?" made famous by Elvis Presley, and "Europa" by Carlos Santana, all in a mellifluous classical style.

As the final note faded, he gave a half-impish, half-humble smile.

"My friends and family were shocked when I told them I was coming here," he said. "They say, 'Flavio, you have a life many would kill for, and you're going someplace where nobody knows you? Are you crazy?'

"I tell them, 'This is a beautiful place, and I believe I have opportunities here I will never have anyplace else.' I believe my plan is already on the way to success," he said, and gave a melodic laugh.

Sala's plan is something like his profession's equivalent of going off the grid, pitching a tent in some distant wilderness and hoping to conjure a new civilization into being.

His strategy is to play for minuscule gatherings, often of 25 people or fewer, to build a fan base "one person by one person," in the hope of eventually amassing enough support to draw the attention of the American music establishment.

Early signs are positive. About 400 people have attended two or more of the 60 or concerts Sala has performed in private homes, houses of worship and restaurants since he came to Maryland. Many have returned several times.

"He's one of the most amazing guitarists I've ever heard," says Steve Mandell, the Owings Mills man who shared the 1973 Grammy for best country instrumental performance for the bluegrass smash "Dueling Banjos."

"You just don't see people play like that," Mandell said. "Any time he's playing, we go."

Sala's newest idea: to crisscross the country by car, beginning on Sept. 1, to perform 25 house concerts in 12 states during a two-month tour.

It won't be his first journey off the beaten path.

Sala, the son of a third-generation classical pianist, was born in 1983 in Bojano, a town of 6,000 people in the province of Campobasso, about 100 miles east of Rome.

Shy as a boy, he ducked conversations whenever he could. But one day, at the age of 7, he picked up a guitar, took it into his room, and seemed not to emerge for months.

"His love for the guitar hit him like a lightning bolt," his mother, Angela, said through a translator during a recent visit to Maryland.

A video Sala still has on his smartphone shows him as a shaggy 9-year-old performing at a church. The boy rarely looks up from his guitar or changes expression, but his hands work the fretboard with such astonishing speed that the music sounds like the work of three or four players.

He looks overwhelmed when playing the video.

"Finally I didn't have to talk!" he cries.

Sala attended a conservatory in Naples and took his new world by storm. He won a prestigious international classical guitar competition in Gargnano, Italy, at 18, and another in Alessandria at 20.

The second win, at the Michele Pittaluga International Classical Guitar Competition, earned him a $12,000 prize and a 40-concert tour of Europe, South America and Asia.

Sala found himself on the cover of music magazines on several continents and winning fans on the Internet.

"That competition was career-changing," he says.

So was the musical direction he was taking.

As a guitarist and as a listener, Sala had always focused on classical music. But as his musical world grew, so did his exposure to other genres.

He fell in love with flamenco, jazz and rumba, and began exploring the techniques of their masters.

When he wove some of the unfamiliar strains into his playing, it didn't go over well with everyone.

"The people I knew [in classical] said, 'Flavio is a flamenco player now; Flavio is a jazz player; Flavio is singing!'" he says. "'This cannot be classical guitar!'

"I say, 'Why not?' These styles are so beautiful! I would describe what I do as simply playing the music I love in a classical style."

The approach dazzled some. Sala won another high-profile competition in Venezuela and placed second in San Francisco and in Lodz, Poland.

Within two years, he says, he no longer cared what "the purists" thought. In 2010, he decided to double down.

Sala approached high-profile players in several genres — bassist Marcus Miller, who worked with Miles Davis; Italian pop singer Giuseppe Mango; Peruvian drummer Alex Acuna — to create an unapologetically joyous "crossover classical" CD.

The work, "De La Buena Onda" (rough translation: "Good Vibrations"), impressed some industry heavyweights.

The Grammy Award-winning jazz/Latin composer Michel Camilo, for example, dubbed Sala "one of the key players in today's modern guitar scene."

Howe, the longtime lead guitarist and frontman for the progressive rock group Yes, got a copy while on the road in South America. He phoned Sala to tell him he'd been playing the album continuously in his limousine.

"I kept thinking, 'This sounds interesting; how's he going to play the next bit?'" Howe wrote in an email to The Baltimore Sun. "'Oh — with beauty and consideration.'

"Flavio's breadth of influences and his achievements so far show he's capable of performing so much of the classical repertoire, just for a start."

With his classical background, Sala says it feels unnatural to improvise on the guitar, but in trying it in recent years, he has learned he can unearth sounds more beautiful than any a score might have suggested.

At times, he says, meeting people can be like that.

Three years ago, Sala's life in Italy seemed set.

He lived near loved ones. He had landed a job teaching at a conservatory. And even though Europe's economy was stagnant, the gigs paying poorly, he could perform occasionally — including in Russia, a nation he has toured 10 times.

A turning point came when Howe asked Sala to teach with him at the Cross Styles Music Retreat, a guitar camp Howe hosts in upstate New York each summer.

The students found his playing so bracing that several told Sala that if he moved to the United States, they'd support him however they could.

"I love teaching, but I told my family I didn't spend all these years studying so I could spend my life in a school," he says. "I knew I would be starting from zero, but when people hear me play, they love it. This seemed like a chance to go after my dream."

With the help of Perella, a retired real estate agent who lives in Timonium and is Sala's distant cousin, he applied for the O-1 visa.

Previous "Aliens of Extraordinary Ability" include former Beatle John Lennon, Dallas Mavericks star Dirk Nowitzki and "Gangnam Style" rapper Psy.

Perella talked scores of friends into booking house concerts. The plans became part of Sala's application. The visa was approved in 2014, granting him the maximum three years' residence.

His first gig was the show in Westminster, where he played a 20-minute set to introduce the Baltimore band Blue Train. He earned a standing ovation.

That led to a concert at a synagogue, which led to several house concerts, which led to performances at Goucher and St. John's Colleges and beyond.

On a recent steamy afternoon, Sala played for a packed house in the stone chapel of the Mays Chapel United Methodist Church in Timonium. Sweat beaded his brow as he unfurled a collection of pieces by an array of artists — Bach, the Italian violinist Niccolo Paganini, the pop star Donovan.

The crowd of 50 sat rapt for two hours but chuckled, smiled and shed a few tears as Sala deployed his speedy fingers to evoke humor, melancholy and joy.

The audience didn't seem to mind when he paused to promote his coming tour, an adventure he's financing through the crowdfunding website indiegogo.com, and raffled off a copy of his new CD, "Mi Gitarra y Mis Amores" — "My Guitar and My Loves."

"I'll play a little soundtrack while you fill out the forms" for the drawing, he said to laughter.

Sala finished his last piece with a bullfighter's flourish, got a long ovation, and bowed in gratitude to the audience — and to his guitar.

"I want to be heard, to be known, to play everywhere," he said. "This is my bet on myself."

jonathan.pitts@baltsun.com

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