To celebrate the The Assad Brothers’ 15th concert at the 92nd Street Y, Artistic Director of the “Art of the Guitar” concert series, Ben Verdery and his panel of three former guitar students discussed the first time he’d heard the Assad Brothers perform. The group articulated, for the attending audience, the compelling technique and performance aspects that make the duo legendary, in addition to acknowledging the Assads’ significant contribution to the guitar through their teaching, performing, composing and arrangements.
Verdery first heard the Assad Brothers perform prior to their debut concert at the 92nd Street Y during late January of 1980. “Luthier Thomas Humphrey was my downstairs neighbor at the time and always like to say that I, ‘lived above my maker,’” Verdery joked. “Thom phoned me to say I needed to come downstairs right away and hear these two phenomenal guitarists. I went downstairs and entered what was Thom’s octagonal shaped living room and there were the Assad Brothers, playing Leo Brouwer’s Micro Piezas, from memory. My life was altered in that moment.”
Joao Luíz of The Brasil Guitar Duo first encountered The Assad Brothers at a concert in São Paulo when he was nearly 15 years old. “Usually, I brought a tape recorder with me to concerts and I was so blown away that I forgot to press stop on my recorder.”
Australian classical guitarist Dr. Simon Powis’ first exposure to the Assad’s guitar playing came through listening to a recording. “I wore out the grooves on this CD. Their technical virtuosity stood out to me, especially their trills.”
Guitarist Thomas Flippin of The Duo Noire first heard the Assad Brothers via their album, Latin American Music for Two Guitars. “I was struck by Sergio’s virtuosity with composition and his jazz harmonies. As a duo, their articulation and exchanging of rhythms, melody and harmony.”
“It’s how they handle their use of rubato as a duo,” Luíz pointed out, speaking of the duo’s ability to engage in altering the tempo of their music for dramatic effect ever without losing sync.
Verdery posed the question of why it is such a challenge to sync two or more guitars together in performance. The panel agreed that the guitar, as an instrument, tends to be unforgiving when it comes to articulating string attack in unison. To demonstrate, Dr. Powis asked the audience to participate in clapping together on cue. The first attempt resulted in an audible lag. And to underscore his point of doing this exercise, the audience’s second attempt to clap together resulted in marked improvement but for a back row joker who intentionally delayed their clap.
“When you hear a guitar duo like The Assad Brothers, it is so easy to take for granted the challenge it is to perform with another guitarist,” Powis said.
“They are always in perfect unison in spite of the technical difficulty of their material,” Flippin observed. “It’s as if they are psychically attuned.”
Verdery discussed the contribution the Assad Brothers have made toward expanding the repertoire for guitar duos, all while bringing their own sensibility and voice to their interpretation of various composers. He mentioned recalling how Sergio Assad had once told him, “People tend to play music by Piazzolla fast, when really, the notes should be played like punches.”
In a specific example, Verdery cited a percussive portion of Jongo, one piece that the duo was going to perform in this evening’s concert, written by Brazilian composer Paulo Bellinati. “The Assads are always looking for a way to make music sound better. Generally, when most guitarists perform the percussion section of this piece, they tend to distribute their hits randomly all over the surface of the soundboard of the guitar, above and below the strings. What the Assads have done is to alter the quality of their hits upon the guitar, by using their fingernails and fingertips, and they exchange the location of their hits upon the body of the guitar–the side of the guitar, below the bridge, to the top of the soundboard, and so on. The quality of sound is shaped by each location on the guitar in addition to how they chose to apply the hit, and this effectively enriches the textures of the percussion section.”
“We haven’t even brought up Sergio Assad’s talents as both a composer and arranger,” Verdery said. “I know that David Tanenbaum at the San Francisco Conservatory shakes his head over how Sergio has entire transcriptions of Bach squirreled away inside a drawer that he needs to publish.”
Joao Luíz offered the insight, as a Brazilian native himself, that the spoken nature of Brazilian Portuguese is an inherently musical language filled with its own distinct accents and inflections. “When I hear The Assads playing Baroque music, I hear them placing accents within the music where they feel they ought to be. The Assads have a mannerism to their playing that is entirely their own,” he said. “And it is elegant.”
First half of concert program opened with Fernando Sor’s Fantasia, Op. 54 bis, Introduction, Variations, Allegro dans le genre Espagnol, which the Assad Brothers performed on their spruce-top Stephan Connor guitars with dazzling speed and an interplay of rich dynamics and tonal expressiveness. They followed this with the smolderingly mysterious and sublime Córdoba from Albéniz’ Cantos de Espana, Op, 232 and his El Puerto from Iberia, which showcased the Assad’s magical ability to create two unique guitar voices articulating different musical ideas yet singing in perfect unison. Their performance of Joaquín Rodrigo’s Tonadilla for two guitars alternated between brooding and brightness for its crisp and agitated articulation of second intervals modulating toward flamenco-like runs at the piece’s dramatic, full-stop close.
The Assads closed the first half of their concert in a very moving tribute to the late Roland Dyens with their performance of two excerpts from his Côté Nord, Hillerød and Ga-Jol Dance. Hillerød is cheerfully modern and spiky, filled with striking rhythms, hits of percussion and burps of bass notes. Ga-Jol Dance pirouettes and slings its notes forward via glissandos in a propulsive melody that tries on a couple variations then enters a dreamlike lull of sweet harmonics before the tempo resumes its original fleet-fingered melody and striking rhythmical patterns.
For the second half of their program, the Assads performed an intensely Brazilian program, starting with Villa-Lobos’ sentimental A Lenda do Cabocio, arranged by Sergio Assad, and Villa-Lobos’ Choros No. 5, “Alma Brasileira,” also arranged by Sergio Assad. Their interpretation of Radamés Gnattali’s lyrical yet modern-sounding excerpts from Suite Retratos: Valsa (Ernesto Nazareth) and Corta-jaca (Chiquinha Gonzaga) conveyed all the sweeping optimism of its busy, conversational melody between two guitars with seamless ease. The audience was clearly breath-taken by the Assads’ moving performance of the romantically lyrical sentimental, Abismo de Roses by Américo Jacomino “Canhoto,” which the duo followed with the sophisticated jazz of Baden Powell de Aquino’s Tempo Feliz. To close, they performed Paulo Bellinati’s joyful Jongo, with all their wondrous interplay of dazzling percussion.
After the concert, The Assad Brothers met with students from the Theatre Arts Production Company School and the DeWitt Clinton High School (both located in the Bronx) to pose for photographs. Ava Lehrer, who serves as Associate Director of the 92nd Street Y’s Center for Educational Outreach established this music education project in 2014 for New York City public schools. The program sponsors workshops led by 92Y visiting artists and provides the students with round trip transportation and complimentary tickets to all of the 92nd Y’s classical music concerts, in addition to holding school-based events. “The program engages about 1,000 students annually from ten public high schools and is entirely free to students and their schools,” Miss Lehrer says.
Odair Assad leaned in when I asked him how on earth he managed to get through playing that concert without a footstool or an a-frame prop. The entire time, he’d kept both feet flat on the floor with his guitar tilted at the perfect angle without any discernable support or signs of fatigue. The funny look on his face delivered his immediate response, but he also appeared to give it some thought. About two seconds’ worth. “It’s easier this way!”
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