YOUNG STEPHEN TURLEY has brought more honor to the highly acclaimed classical guitar program at Peabody Conservatory -- but in doing so the aspiring concert player didn't realize he was going to be at the center of an international argument.
The 22-year-old Turley, a Peabody senior who calls New Haven, Conn., home, recently was awarded a fourth-place prize in the Niccolo Paganini International Guitar Competition in Moneglia, Italy. The first three winners took home monetary prizes, but Turley's award means more travel. He won the right next year to perform two concerts in Russia and Sicily, which figure to be important steppingstones toward a professional career.
Turley's joy, however, was tempered with harsh reality. He discovered the music world, like any other, is susceptible to nationalism, politics and backbiting, and what started out as a week of great communication among guitarists from all over the world almost ended in disaster.
As a student of Peabody guitar guru Ray Chester and the great performer Manuel Barrueco, Turley has developed a distinctive playing style. "Unfortunately, I found that style can be interpreted in both good and bad ways," Turley recalled ruefully of the judging process in Italy.
The 25 contestants played in a 10th century chapel in the small town of Moneglia, and Turley was the viewers' favorite from the start. The villagers showered him with adulation on the streets, and in one preliminary round he received the maximum 10 points from judges from Switzerland, France, Germany and Spain. The four Italian judges, however, only gave him 5's.
"I knew I was in trouble when one of the Italian judges came up to me and said, 'Just because you are the audience favorite doesn't mean you are the jury favorite,' " Turley recalled. "But what can you do? I am a foreigner; I go by their rules."
Their rules, to the townspeople's outrage, meant that Turley was not among the six performers to advance to the final round. The local newspaper joined in with an indignant editorial. And that's when Albina Marcone Scarpi, the president of the competition who also was affronted by the judges' decision, stepped in.
"I was making plans to go home when Ms. Marcone Scarpi called me in," Turley said. She took me to a special review session in front of all the judges, where there was a tremendous lot of bickering. Then she told me to stay the rest of the week, to be at the final ceremony by all means, and to wear my tuxedo. And that's when they gave me the award.
"I was overwhelmed. What they did was kill me, then bring me back to life. At one point, when I had played as well as I possibly could, I was as high as the fever at a Michael Jackson concert. The next, when I discovered I hadn't made the finals, I was falling like the Hindenberg.
"It was a great awakening to discover that not all is done when the music ends."
Running such an emotional gamut left Turley limp. "I crashed and slept all the way home on the 747," he said. "I was exhausted, but proud and satisfied to have represented my school and my country.
"Perhaps I should be bitter, but I'm not. Nothing could take away from the experience I shared with the guitarists from other countries. Very few of them spoke English, but we communicated quite well through the music, playing one another's guitars; it was non-stop, wall-to-wall playing. We had great rapport."
The wide variety of playing techniques came as a surprise to Turley, who of course is schooled in the "big" sound that American audiences favor. "The European style is very different," Turley said. "They favor a very fast, very clean but very thin tone. Here, of course, they want you to sound like James Earl Jones reciting Shakespeare."
Turley made many friends among his peers, one of them being Carlo Marchione, an Italian who took first-place honors. "He and I became very close," Turley said. "He had tears in his eyes when we found out I wasn't in the finals."
Turley, who caught the eye of Peabody instructor Nat Gunod at a summer workshop in 1986, says he now looks ahead eagerly to the holidays when he can enjoy his accomplishment with his mother in Connecticut. It was she who originally pushed a reclusive 12-year-old toward the guitar after his father had died.
"I'm grateful to her and I'm thankful to Peabody for helping me to get to the competition," Turley said. "To say it was fascinating certainly would be an understatement. Obviously, it was a week I'll never forget."