Santa Barabara News-Press’ Josef Woodard review of the Assad Brothers’ performance at the Lobero Theatre. // Josef Woodard do Santa Barabara News-Press resenha o performance do Duo Assad no Lobero Theatre.
CONCERT REVIEW: A Brazilian musical odyssey
Santa Barbara has been lucky to have occasional visits from the undisputedly masterful classical guitar duo of Brazilian brothers Sérgio and Odair Assad in the past, including a fondly remembered intimate recital in the Mural Room of the County Courthouse five years back. But when the pair played the Lobero Theatre on Tuesday night, part of CAMA’s chamber music “Masterseries” chamber music, they offered a special treat — a valentine, if you will — to the local music-loving population and perhaps to this hallowed hall itself, where classical guitar greats including the Romero family and Andres Segovia have performed.
While this acclaimed duo has traversed a wide spectrum of classical music in its time, this was the first time, Sérgio told the audience, that the brothers were taking on an all-Brazilian program.
What transpired over two diverse sets of music was a short history of guitar music history, played brilliantly and with the brothers’ famous two-as-one empathy. On this special night, the Assads showed us, in effect, where they are coming from, and surveyed what makes Brazilian music, especially guitar-connected Brazilian music, so magical in the general world of music.
After 45 years of performing together, the Assads have a uniquely integrated sound together, but each leans into his own personal sound and even physical approach to the instrument. Sérgio follows the standard classical guitar practice of using a foot stool to bring the fingerboard up in angle, the better to access with the arm. Odair is more the cowboy, foregoing the foot stool and placing the larger curve of the guitar body on his right knee and cradling the guitar at a sharp angle. Sérgio half-joked that while he is the older brother, by a few years, Odair is the better player, and that may be true by ever-so slight degrees, especially in terms of each brothers’ fluidity in their improvisational moments.
Starting at the beginning, the Assads played works of Ernesto Nazareth (1863-1934), who Sérgio described as “the father of Brazilian music.” Throughout the first, historical and cultural stage-setting set of the evening, they moved through music by America Jacomino “Canhoto,” João Pernambuco, Aníbal Augusto Sardinha “Garoto,” and two selections from Radamé s Gnattali’s “Suite Retratos,” which is, in itself, a personal homage to such composer precedents as Nazareth.
Along the path of composers lesser-known to average music listeners in the first half, they also covered one of the best-known Brazilian tunes, Luis Bonfá’s “Manha de Carnaval,” commonly known for the film it was featured in, “Black Orpheus.” But the Assad version arrived in a fresh, rethought package of an arrangement, as much a comment on the legendary piece as the piece
In the second half of the program, the musical focus was on a handful of hugely important and widely known composer/musicians, notably including the greatest and best-known of Brazilian composers, Heitor Villa-Lobos, sophisticated song master Antônio Carlos Jobim, and individualistic hero Egberto Gismonti, a living composer/musician who has uniquely merged “serious music” with indigenous Brazilian sounds and impulses.
Rightfully, the second half’s list also included pieces by Sérgio himself, whose mark as a composer is becoming increasingly important. In another Santa Barbara angle, his concerto for guitar quartet and orchestra, “Interchange,” was given one of its first performances by the LAGQ and the Santa Barbara Symphony, two years back.
Respective talents of Sérgio, the composer, and Odair (pronounced “Oh-dah-ear,” incidentally) the player came to the fore as Odair opened the second set with a solo work by his brother, “Seis Brevidades” (“Six Short Pieces”). This alternately impressionistic and energetic set of miniatures, played beautifully by Odair, can also be heard on his fine 2009 solo album, “El caminante” (GHA). Framing the set, Sergio’s attractive composition “Tahhiyya li Ossulina (“Homage to Our Roots)” capped off a musical journey which included strong but rare pieces by Villa-Lobos and Jobim (in non-bossa mode). Gismonti’s jazz-meets-folk-colored charmer ” Palhaço.”
For an encore, the brothers played the night’s only non-Brazilian piece, Venezuelan composer Antonio Lauro’s “Vals Venezolano No. 3,” but the personal connection ran deep, to when the brothers were precocious guitar-playing youngsters in Rio de Janeiro. Wee Odair played the hard part, Sérgio joked, while he opted for the accompaniment role, but he served as a very active and virtuosic support system here, as always.
Apart from the deservedly lofty perch the duo occupies in guitar circles, really, the Assad brothers by now should be considered one of the great and reliable pleasures of known classical music. Next time we hear them hereabouts, they will probably be matriculated more in the realm of “classical” repertoire.
As for Tuesday’s special performance treat, we were led into the particular wonderland of Brazilian musical legacies, delivered by two of that deeply musical nation’s boldest, yet also continuingly humble, heroes.