Marc Unger uses wit and humor to breathe life into classical music
Unger will perform at the free Casual Classics Concert series Monday, Feb. 22 at 7 p.m. The concert will be held at Fellowship Presbyterian Church, 389 Bent Tree Drive in Jasper.
Classical music doesn’t typically invoke feelings of a romping good time - but one local musician is out to change its uptight perception and show people that the world of classical music is as storied and interesting as any other genre.
“Often times the performances are quite stuffy and a bore,” said Marc Unger, a classical guitarist born in Manchester, England and a 30-year resident of Pickens County. “Even if there is dialogue, it’s about some diminished fifth harmony the audience can’t relate to. I want to offer a show that’s funny and endearing, and one that’s able to attract a wider audience to classical music.”
In an impromptu performance during our interview, the Marble Hill resident sampled A Short History of Music, his concert that begins in the throws of the 16th century Renaissance and winds up in a 21st-century nuevo tango. His passion revealed itself with every finger pluck and emotive flashing of the eyes as he narrated along with the music.
“We begin with a piece Galileo’s father wrote on the lute, and work through baroque, classical and romantic periods,” he said, “which I love the romantic period so I stay there a bit. Then we come around to more modern compositions from the last 100 years.”
The final piece, the only original in his set, is a combination of Unger’s influences from legendary film score composers like John Williams (Star Wars, Jaws, and dozens of other iconic movies), and Celtic music. He peppers the show with references to jazz, blues and Elvis, and he keeps the mood light and connected with amusing anecdotes about composers and various eras of music.
A Short History of Music, which spectators can enjoy for free at the Casual Classics Concert series on Monday, Feb. 22, is the culmination of a lifetime dedicated to the classical guitar, and organizers say seeing Unger perform in this capacity is an opportunity that shouldn’t be missed.
“Many of you have heard Marc play in local restaurants and public events, but you probably have not heard his take on music history from a classical guitar perspective,” said Casual Classics founder and concert director Suzanne Shull. “His insight and humor will bring the music alive and help you place the music you hear in a historic perspective. We are lucky to have this internationally-known guitarist as our neighbor in Jasper.”
Unger debuted A Short History of Music in 2009 at the Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester, where his love affair with the guitar began and eventually brought him thousands of miles away from home to Georgia.
“I started playing when I was young, around the period my parents divorced,” he said. “I suppose the music was cathartic for me during that time.”
Unger was drawn to the simplicity of “a few planks of wood with tuned strings” capable of creating polyphonic sounds that could be used to transcribe music from cello, piano and violin. He studied at Trinity College of Music in Manchester, and in 1978 received first prize from the British Federation of Music. Then in 1979, influenced by bands like the Clash and the Sex Pistols, Unger took an angsty divergence from classical and formed a punk rock band.
“I had a mohawk and a safety pin in my lip,” he said. “I did all that and got it out of my system, then it was time to choose university.”
That’s when he found Georgia. During his studies in England in 1977, Unger had the honor of meeting Andres Segovia, considered by many to be the father of the modern classical guitar movement. At the time, Segovia was an elderly man who would only hold one master class each year with a handful of students. Unger noticed that three of the students Segovia selected from the hundreds of applicants had studied under John Sutherland, a renowned guitar pedagogue and professor at Georgia State University and the University of Georgia.
“He was also a former student of Segovia,” he said, “but I met with him and he was a sage teacher. He was so gifted and could make you understand things in subtle ways, without forcing.”
Unger migrated to Georgia in 1982 and studied at Georgia State. He relocated from the Atlanta area to Pickens after a couple of years into an “inexpensive, dilapidated old cabin” and put down the guitar for five years.
“I didn’t pick it up at all,” said Unger, who had a young family at the time. Rather than playing music, he spent all of his time trying to make ends meet through odd jobs like milking cows.
But he couldn’t stay away long, and eventually picked up the guitar again. In addition to playing gigs around the metro-Atlanta area, Unger became a longtime staple at Countryside Café in Marble Hill, where he played every Friday night for 10 years. Then, assisted through the development of the Big Canoe community and residents there, he secured other local shows and private performances. He also taught private lessons from his home, as well as workshops in area schools.
After three decades, Unger and his charming British accent still live in that same cabin he bought so many years ago. He doesn’t have television, a computer or a cell phone, and spends his free time gardening.
“I was an inner-city hooligan from Manchester and came to be kind of a hermit in this cabin in the woods,” he said. “I can honestly say, I’m very lucky. My house is mortgage free, my children are doing well and I can make decent money playing guitar in a relatively short period of time.”
Looking ahead, Unger wants to perform A Short History of Music around the world, and continue to support education in music to “spark that passion and encourage students to pursue their dreams.” He is thrilled to be featured at the Casual Classics Concert performance, and hopes to help draw more people to what he calls a diamond amidst the pastoral backdrop of Pickens County.
The Casual Classics Concert series, now in its 10th season, has survived thanks to generous sponsors and through the ongoing efforts of founder Suzanne Shull. Six times a year, top-notch musicians perform at Fellowship Presbyterian Church. The series began as strictly classical, but after a few years Shull added different styles to the repertoire, such as jazz and contemporary folk.
“I go to them all the time,” Unger said, “but for me, the sad thing is there aren’t new people coming. It’s not just chamber music; there are a wide variety of musicians featured, such as percussion and others, and the acoustics are phenomenal. It’s a real treat to have here, and we want more people to know about it.”
See Marc Unger perform A Short History of Music at the next free Casual Classics Concert on Monday, Feb. 22 at 7 p.m. at Fellowship Presbyterian Church, 389 Bent Tree Drive, Jasper, Ga. 30143.
Learn more about the Casual Classics Concert series at www.capaajasper.com.
Learn more about Marc Unger, including other upcoming performances, at www.atlantaclassicalguitarist.com.