Guitarist Sergio Assad is one of three soloists slated to perform with the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra in Richardson Auditorium Friday, November 28. The other soloists are his guitarist brother Odair, with whom Sergio has established a guitar duo, and violinist Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg. The three artists solo in the New Jersey premier of "Concerto Originis," a work for 16 strings — two guitars with six strings apiece, and one violin with its four strings.
Sergio Assad knows the piece intimately; he is the composer. The New Jersey Symphony Orchestra (NJSO), along with the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, the Seattle Symphony, the Aspen Music Festival, the Dallas Symphony, and the Nashville Symphony co-commissioned the concerto. Assad wrote the piece in one month, finishing it in June, 2002; it premiered with the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra in January, 2003.
"The concerto has to do with Nadja’s roots and ours," Sergio says in a telephone interview from his home in Chicago. "We have been collaborating with Nadja for several years. We’ve always talked about roots, hers in Italy, and ours in the Middle East and Brazil. The first two movements come from Italian music; the next two are from Brazil; and the final movement is a blend that celebrates our friendship. I imagined the piece in five movements from the very beginning."
Sergio wrote the piece without consulting his co-soloists. "They trust me," he says, "but I always asked Nadja what is possible on the violin. I know the guitar very well and can tell what’s playable and what is not. If it’s not playable, I give it to my brother."
Sergio, born in December, 1952, and Odair, born in October, 1956, have been playing together since Sergio was 11. "Odair is three and a half years younger than I am," Sergio says, "and from the beginning he had more facility for playing the guitar than I had. I had to cope with that, but I soon demonstrated that I could make arrangements." Sergio describes their relationship as collaboration, rather than competition. Their sister, Badi, who is also a performing musician, was born in 1966.
The three siblings, and other relatives, participate in an American family tour that begins with a performance at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Temple of Dendur in April. Three generations of the Assad family participate, including father Jorge, mandolin; mother Ica, a singer; their three children; and Sergio’s daughters Clarice, 25, piano and vocals; Carolina, 24, vocals; and son Rodrigo, 21, guitar.
The tour grew from a documentary film about Sao Joao de Boa Vista, where the parents live. When the film makers discovered that the parents perform in a club for amateurs in the community of 100,000, and that their children are professional musicians, they invited the siblings to join in. "To make the documentary richer," says Sergio, "they asked us to put on a show in the town’s theater. We filled the whole place."
Once the Assad Brothers’ agent, International Concert Management, saw the film, they persuaded the duo to bring the parents to the United States and to recruit other family members for the April tour. They appear as an ensemble for the first time in the United States; in Brazil they never performed together.
Bringing his mother and father on board for the American tour was tricky, Sergio says. "We had to convince them that what they’ll do here is not different from what they do there. Really, though, it is. In Brazil they play in a bar, where people do not pay too much attention. Some people who go to the bar don’t care about music. For the first time, they’ll perform for an audience that cares. They haven’t experienced this before."
Sergio’s parents have their roots in three continents. His paternal grandfather emigrated from Lebanon to Brazil at the turn of the 20th century. The surname Assad, Sergio says, is common in the Middle East. "My grandfather left for religious reasons," he adds. "He was Christian and married an Italian woman in Brazil." Sergio calculates his heritage as one-fourth each Lebanese, Italian, Brazilian, and Indian. "Brazil," he points out, "is a melting pot, like the United States."
The brothers were born in Sao Paolo, a world metropolis with its 18 million inhabitants, and began studying guitar together at an early age. For seven years they worked in Rio de Janeiro with classical guitarist and lutenist Monina Tavora, a disciple of Andres Segovia, who, early in the 20th century, helped re-establish classical guitar as a versatile concert instrument. "The guitar is my first and only instrument," Sergio says. "I tried a little flute, and piano; but guitar is such a confusion, there’s no room for other instruments." His academic credentials come from the Brazilian National School of Music in Rio de Janeiro.
In 1969 Sergio and Odair came to the United States for the first time, as exchange students in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Their international career began with a major prize at the 1979 Young Artists Competition in Bratislava, in the Czech Republic.
"I used to come to the United States every year since the early 1980s, but I didn’t live here," says Sergio, whose home was in Paris for the decade after 1984, and in Brussels for the next three years. He moved to the United States to marry physicist Angela Olinto, chair of the astrophysicics department at the University of Chicago. He now teaches at Roosevelt University’s Chicago College of Performing Arts.
"The transition to the United States was a big step," Sergio says. "The change was very good. I come from a country where life is exuberant. France was totally the contrary; people live more inside themselves, and they’re emotionally darker; I have very few French friends, and my best friends there are not French. Belgium is worse. When I came here, it was like getting part of my culture back. The United States is more open than Europe. People say hello to each other, and it’s not forbidden to talk to strangers in the elevator."
Odair is married to a Belgian, and has lived in Brussels for some time. But with their extensive concert schedule, the brothers are together a great deal of the time.
"The guitar is a quiet concert instrument," Sergio says. "Every other instrument is more powerful than a guitar. Even a flute can overshadow it. The guitar needs amplification, but nothing obvious. The amplification can’t go too loud, or people notice. It should just reinforce the sound, and allow the guitar to sound acoustic. The guitar’s beauty is an acoustic sound. It’s not beautiful when it’s noticeably electrified. When listeners think they’re hearing a powerful guitar, they’re hearing the result of skillful amplification."
Performing Sergio’s "Concerto Originis" with Salerno-Sonnenberg, the violin is amplified, as well as the guitars. "It sounds weird if you have two instruments amplified and one un-amplified," Sergio told the webzine "Guitarra Magazine." "She is less amplified than we are, but she is still amplified a little bit to add that roundness to the sound."
Although the electronics are a recent accretion, the music originates in Brazilian history. In the third movement of the piece Sergio combines a venerable dance from northern Brazil with Brazil’s typical choro music. Choro (pronounced shore-oh) originated in the working classes, and became the traditional Brazilian music standard after the end of the 19th century.
Sergio calls choro Brazilian jazz. "It’s not improvised," he says. "It was played among workers on weekends. They were groups of friends who would play tricks on each other. They would tease each other and try to play something that the others couldn’t follow. They would hope that their friends couldn’t cope with the change of harmonies."
"The charming thing about Brazilian music is the harmony," Sergio says. He calls it "rich." Standard chords are decorated, like jazz, by adding notes from alien keys. And Brazilian music tends to shift frequently from an established key to a distant one, with which it has little in common aurally.
Tamer than the third movement of "Concerto Originis" is its upper-class fourth movement, which incorporates an old form of 19th century Brazilian salon music. The section is based essentially on the European music favored by aristocrats, rather than on the rhythmically spicy African-influenced music of the poor.
With the concerto for 16 strings the Assad brothers make their debut with the NJSO. Their colleague Salerno-Sonnenberg is a veteran soloist with the orchestra.
Although they appear for the first time with the NJSO in Sergio’s concerto, the Assads played twice in the metropolitan New York area in late September. On September 24 they joined cellist Yo-Yo Ma in one of the early concerts inaugurating Carnegie Hall’s new Zankel Concert Hall. (They joined the cellist also for Sony’s "Obrigado Brazil," released in October, which sped to first place on the crossover charts.) The following day they performed as part of the intriguing series of small-scale concerts sponsored by New Brunswick’s State Theater at the nearby Crossroads Theater. "It was a small venue with a nice atmosphere," Sergio reports.
The brothers’ 2001 Nonesuch release "Sergio and Odair Assad Play Piazzola" includes some of their signature pieces. For one track they borrowed Salerno-Sonnenberg and her violin. The previous year they had recorded Gypsy folk tunes from around the world with her.
The combination of two guitars and violin makes a unique sound. The swathes of guitar sound often evoke the relentless power of nature as a background for the refinement of the violin. Translated into visual terms, the guitars correspond to dots, while the violin mimics lines. Such a combination against an orchestral background, offers NJSO audiences still another distinctive sound.
A 16-string Concerto, New Jersey Symphony Orchestra, Richardson Auditorium, Princeton, 800-ALLEGRO. Sergio and Odair Assad and Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg are guest artists in the program featuring Sergio Assad’s "Triple Concerto for Two Guitars and Violin." Also Mozart’s Symphony No. 40. Carlos Kalmar conducts. $19 to $59. Friday, November 28, 8 p.m.