The Assad Brothers: The World's Guitarists from Brazil to the Middle East


Three Latin-American Sketches

November 14, 1900, in New York City
Died: December 2, 1990, in Tarrytown, New York
Work composed: 1959

After studies in France in the 1920s with the famed pedagogue, Nadia Boulanger, Aaron Copland quickly made a name for himself as a modern firebrand. When his Organ Symphony was first performed in 1924, conductor Walter Damrosch quipped to the audience: “If a young man at the age of 24 can write a symphony like that, in five years he will be ready to commit murder!” Yet in the early 1930s, Copland experienced an epiphany of sorts, leading to a stylistic shift from lean and acerbic Stravinskian Neo-classicism to an accessible but artistically uncompromised style that embraced elements from popular and folk music and endeared him to generations of music lovers.
On a visit to Mexico in 1932, composer Carlos Chávez brought Copland to a popular dance club called El Salón México. Copland found himself enthralled by the vibrant spirit of the nightclub, even admitting that it was not the music or the dance per se that inspired him. In any case, the experience engendered a passion for Latin-American music that inspired the immediate composition of El Saló México, as well as such later works as Danzon Cubano (1942) and Three Latin-American Sketches.
The Sketches evolved over several years. In 1959, Copland composed Paisaje Méxicano for the Festival of Two Worlds in Spoleto, Italy. Concluding that the brief work was too short, he added a companion piece, Danza de Jalisco.
These two entities eventually became the second and third of the Three Latin-American Sketches, first heard in tandem in 1965. Six years later, Copland added the first Sketch, Estribillo. The composer’s words capture the essence of the three-part work succinctly:
“I would describe the character of the Three Latin-American Sketches as being just what the title says. The tunes, the rhythms and the temperament of the pieces are folksy, while the orchestration is bright and snappy and the music sizzles along — or at least it seems to me that it does. Nevertheless, the Sketches are not so light as to be pop-concert material, although certainly they would be a light number in a regular concert, much in the same way as El Salón México.
Estribillo is based on Venezuelan popular materials and is very vigorous. Paisaje Méxicano is poetic and lyrical. Danza de Jalisco is bouncy, contrasting the rhythms of 6/8 and 3/4.”


Tahhia Li Ossoulina (“Homage to Our Roots”)

Suite: De Volta as Raizes (“Back to Our Roots”) (World Premiere in the Revised Version)

Phases, Concerto for Two Guitars (World Premiere)

December 26, 1952, in São Paulo, Brazil
Now lives: San Francisco and Paris

For several decades, the estimable guitar duo of Sérgio Assad and his younger brother Odair have performed for audiences worldwide, including several appearances with Seattle Symphony. In addition to his highly lauded work as a performer, Sérgio has often demonstrated true gifts as a composer, in which capacity he has written more than four dozen works that include guitar. With family roots in Lebanon, his music draws its thematic inspiration from both his ancestral culture as well as the rich musical traditions of Brazil, the land of his birth. He and Odair have collaborated with a number of leading musicians of our time, including violinists Gidon Kremer and Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg.
The guitar duo piece Tahhia Li Ossoulina (“Homage to Our Roots”) unfolds slowly and moodily, conveying a distinctly Middle Eastern feel enhanced by “bent notes” recalling the Indian sitar and various plucked Arabic instruments. Strong rhythms are emphasized by striking the guitar’s top in the manner of Spanish flamenco, which has long tendrils reaching back into centuries of Arabic presence in the Iberian peninsula.
Regarding De Volta as Raizes (“Back to Our Roots”) Sérgio has said, “We wanted our music to bring something new to [our] audiences. In fact, with our music, we are merging two cultures.” In so doing, the composer has joined a substantial group of international musicians who have drawn great inspiration from cultures around the world. De Volta as Raizes symbolically reminds us of the connective tissue that binds people across the globe. Music, partly because it is ultimately not beholden to linguistic barriers, can serve to bridge the gap between otherwise and seemingly disparate cultures. That, perhaps, is the extramusical importance of De Volta as Raizes.
Originally scored to include a female vocalist, tonight we hear De Volta as Raizes in a purely instrumental version. The scoring includes guitars and a new plucked instrument called a sazuki, which is essentially a hybrid of the Turkish saz and the Greek bouzouki. The creation of such an instrument suggests the integration of two cultures. This musically ecumenical piece is in essence a collection of numbers reflecting the musical traditions of not only Lebanon, but of Syria, Morocco and Arabic lands in general. Echoes of familiar Brazilian bossa nova appear in tandem or alternating with rhythmic patterns common to both Latin American and Middle Eastern music.
Tonight’s concert marks the world premiere performance of Sérgio Assad’s Phases, Concerto for Two Guitars, for which he has graciously provided the following commentary:
“This double concerto, which I have called Phases, is scored for two guitars and orchestra. As a whole, the work reflects three distinct periods in my life as a performing musician and composer. It is laid out in the traditional three-movement format. The opening movement, Recollections, refers to personal musical memories from the 1970s while living in Brazil before launching my career as a guitarist. Those were days of dreams and defining decisions about which path to take. I had by then begun to compose some music and dreamed of becoming a composer. At the same time, I began receiving positive feedback regarding my performing career with my brother Odair, and that musical aspect of my life predominated.
“In 1983, the second phase of my creative life began when I moved to Paris, where I had to learn a new language and renewed my dedication to focusing on fulfilling my still-potent dream of becoming a composer. This second phase permeates the second movement of the concerto, titled Old Portrait. I had originally composed the main theme for clarinet and guitar, inspired by a feeling for an ambience suggesting musical ideas of ancient and modern origin.
“In 1996, I moved to the United States and began the third phase of my life, which included my marriage to Angela Olinto, a Brazilian American who teaches Astrophysics at the University of Chicago. Angela’s profound encouragement to pursue my dream to compose inspired me to initially produce many pieces for solo guitar, yet it also led me to expand my vision to include chamber music and eventually works for larger ensembles. My concerto’s concluding movement, Resurgence, reflects my new musical life, one that nonetheless is filled with all possible links to the past and celebrates great hope for the future. This concerto, my first such essay for two guitars and orchestra, is dedicated to Angela.”

© 2011 Steven Lowe

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