Josef Woodward from the Santa Barbara News-Press interviews Sérgio Assad. // Josef Woodward do Santa Barbara News-Press entrevista o Sérgio Assad:
In the world according to classical guitar, the name Assad has been a towering presence for many years now.
Virtuosic Brazilian guitarist brothers Sergio and Odair have made of their acclaimed guitar duo an internationally revered sensation, while also pursuing separate musical paths — Odair’s advancing solo career and Sergio’s expanding investment in life as a composer.
But the duo prevails, and has thankfully made Santa Barbara an occasional concertizing stopping point. In 2007, the duo presented a memorable show in the magical ambience of the mural room at the Santa Barbara Courthouse, part of a “chamber music in historic places” series. Tuesday night at the Lobero — a room that has hosted many important guitarists, including the guitar-luminary Romero family — the Assad Brothers return, as part of the chamber music limb of the CAMA season.
Serious guitar fans, and serious music fans of whatever persuasion, are duly advised to be in the house. For a powerful introduction to the duo’s mastery and musicality, proceed to their 2008 Nonesuch album “Jardim Abandonado.”
We recently caught up with Sergio, very much in the thick of a brilliant career, with and apart from his sibling.
Your duo has performed in Santa Barbara before, most recently in 2007, in the courthouse mural room. And speaking of local “appearances,” your composition “Interchange” was given one of its first performances by the LAGQ with the Santa Barbara Symphony two years ago. Do you feel any particular kinship with this part of the world?
Actually, I’ve been living in California for the last couple of years since I joined the San Francisco Conservatory of Music as a member of their faculty. I’ve lived in other parts of the world before but I developed a special connection with California and have a great pleasure being here.
You and your brother play separately and do projects apart, but then come back together in this long-standing duo. Is the duo the foundation of your musical lives, and is it also important for you to pursue artistic directions of your own?
We started playing together at a very early stage of our lives and did so for many years until the mid ’90s. From ’96 on, we started playing with other musicians, but always using the two-guitar combination with special guests. The list is long but I can name a few like Gidon Kremer, Nadja Salerno Sonnenberg, Yo-Yo Ma and Paquito D’Rivera.
More recently Odair wanted to do some solo work and have been developing his own career. On my side, the urge to write music is quite high and I’ve dedicated some time and effort in this direction in the last few years. Although we’ve been working apart from time to time, our main goal is still theduo partnership. We still enjoy playing together, even after doing so for over 40 years.
The Assad Brothers have become such a vital force in the guitar world, and beyond. Has its path so far exceeded your expectations of what might happen for the duo?
When we started playing the guitar back in the ’60s we wanted just to play for fun. Back then, in Brazil, it was unthinkable to pursue a professional musical career as concert guitarists. Life proved us wrong and actually has given us something completely out of our scope. In that sense the expectations we had were exceeded by far.
Can you tell me about the concept and the design for the program you will be bringing to Santa Barbara this time?
We want to talk a bit about the development of the Brazilian guitar through the course of the 20th century. We arranged some of the most important guitar standardsin the Brazilian guitar music (canon), giving them our personal vision. For each one of the arrangements we tried something rhythmically or harmonically different.
Of course, Heitor Villa-Lobos has a looming legacy in guitar music — and music, generally. How has his work affected you as a musician, personally, and the larger Brazilian musical sensibility?
Villa-Lobos has been, by far, the most important classical composer in Brazil. However, the best representation of Brazilian music is popular music. Brazil has developed a musical history compared to the U.S. While the U.S. has given jazz to the world, the Brazilians developed what they call MPB (Musica Popular Brasileira).
There are many forms of expressions in Brazilian music that goes under this denomination. We’ve been exposed to this force since we were children and this certainly has affected us a lot in our development as musicians.
You will also be performing music of the great Egberto Gismonti, who I’ve always been fascinated by: he seems like one of the rare musicians who really straddles the classical, jazz and indigenous Brazilian music worlds. Is he a musician you have a particular fondness for?
Egberto Gismonti has been a prominent inspiration for many Brazilian musicians since the ’70s. I could compare his influence with that of Ernesto Nazareth, who had the same kind of impact on the creative process of other musicians 100 years back in time.
Brazil has had such a strong role in the evolution of classical guitar as an accepted part of the classical world, in terms of players and composers. Can you give me a bit of background on how this came to be, and how the state of classical guitar culture in Brazil has evolved in recent years?
Besides Villa-Lobos as a composer, there are quite a few others, but not at the same level he was. Villa-Lobos was a true innovator and has left an approach to classical guitar that nobody thought before. I can’t personally think of the output of Leo Brouwer or Egberto Gismonti being the same if it was not for the strong presence of Villa-Lobos and his ideas. Villa-Lobos music derives from the Brazilian folklore or from the Brazilian traditional music.
In these fields you will find other minor composers that were guitarists and they really helped to shape the guitar the way it is in Brazil nowadays. In the program we will be playing in Santa Barbara, we pay tribute to a few of them. We chose standards by Americo Jacomino Canhoto, Joao Pernambuco, Luiz Bonfa and Anibal Sardinha Garoto. Nowadays, you will find many classical guitarists around the world playing some pieces of these composers, although they are not classical composers.
On the subject of that LAGQ Concerto piece, do you find yourself more involved in composition these days? Is it important for you, for one, to help expand the literature of new guitar music?
I’ve been writing more and more in the recent years. To compose is quite vital for me. I’m not really worried about expanding the guitar literature once that is being done by so many other people around the world. Nowadays, most young composers write something for guitar. In a few years the guitarwill gain more and more respect and will finally get its deserved spot in the international music community.
What projects do you have on the horizon, yourself and with your brother?
We will be touring with Yo-Yo Ma again quite soon, in April, with music specially designed for the occasion.
We are currently working on new compositions that aim to reunite the Assad family comprised by the Assad Duo, our sister Badi Assad, my daughter Clarice and Odair’s daughter Carolina. We toured with them last year in Europe and want to bring this project to the U.S. soon.
Next year we will be touring again with Paquito Rivera and probably will run a complete new repertoire with him.
Are you satisfied with the way things are going in your creative life at this particular moment?
Yes, pretty much. It is a great feeling to find out that you have a musical identity and people are expecting to hear new things you might come up with.