Dallas — I have often bewailed the lack of solo recitals in the musical world, but ones that feature some of the more unusual instruments, such as the guitar, are almost nonexistent. But in the Metroplex, we are fortunate to have the Allegro Guitar Society/Fort Worth Classic Guitar Society. This group regularly bring the greatest guitarists of our era to present pairs of recitals—one in Dallas and the other in Fort Worth. For this review, I saw the Feb. 12 performance at Caruth Auditorium on the Southern Methodist University campus.
The concert featured the Assad Brothers, a guitar duo of astonishing abilities, impeccably playing a unique collection of interesting music. This was one of the best concerts in recent memory. The last time the Assad Brothers were here in 2017, TheaterJones critic Wayne Lee Gay was equally as impressed. You can read his review here.
What is so amazing with the Assad Brothers’ performance is the perfection of their ensemble. They seem to be in mind-to-mind direct connection. This goes beyond playing all the notes precisely together, the phrasing and dynamics are also matching even down to a sforzando on a single note. No doubt the fact that they have been playing together for 50 plus years has a lot to do with it, but it goes way beyond familiarity or even shared DNA. It is as though one person is playing both guitars.
Considering that their playing style is quite different, this mind-meld is even more surprising. The more stationary Sergio uses the standard guitar player’s footrest, which helps to support the instrument with less physical strain. Not so with Odair, who eschews the foot rest with both feet flat on the floor. As a result, he envelops the guitar with his arms in a loving embrace. Odair is also more physically active as he plays. Although he was always seated, there were times when his feet were actually dancing.
Due to the paucity of guitar repertoire, some of the selections were arrangements of works originally written for other instruments. Such was the case here, but there was also some music specifically written for the instrument. The bare-bones program didn’t offer information about which was which or the names of the arrangers. It also lacked biographical material about any of the composers, even their first names (just an initial).
The first selection was Variazioni Concertanti, Op. 130, for two guitars by M. Giuliani. The complete name of this early 19th century guitarist and composer turned out to be more elaborate: Mauro Giuseppe Sergio Pantaleo Giuliani. He was so famous that even Beethoven wrote pieces for him. Like most works written by virtuosi for their own use, these variations demand polished technical facility, which the Assad Brothers certainly have in surplus.
Most variations present two performance problems. One is to bring out the separate character of each variation and the other is to keep the piece as a whole rather than a collection of short miniatures. The Assad Brothers did fine with the former but excessively long pauses between some of the variations chopped it up.
Two selections by Isaac Albéniz brought us into the world of Spanish music, a natural for the guitar. Both selections are arrangements of piano music. The first was “Córdoba” from the piano suite, Cantos de España, and the second was “El Puerto” from Book One of the suite Iberia.
“El Puerto” use a traditional Andalusian dance form that is based on the backbeat and features accented footwork (“zapato” means shoe in Spanish). This effect was imitated by slapping the guitar to get a percussion effect.
Astor Piazzolla, the Argentine tango composer, bandoneon player, and arranger was up next. The brothers played the opening work from his Suite Troileana, Bandoneon, named after his own instrument, a type of accordion. Both of these selections were arranged by Sérgio Assad. Both the arrangement and performance caught Piazzolla’s unique take of the tango, a sex-drenched dance that originated in the working-class barrios of Argentinian.
The first half ended with a work originally written for a guitar duo, Tonadilla para dos guitarras by Joaquín Rodrigo. This demanding piece is made up of three movements and was first performed in 1959 in Lille, France. It is a specialty of the Assad Brothers and definitely shows off their technical mastery but, while that was impressive, it was most noteworthy for the sensitive and nuanced performance.
The second half of the program had different selections but was marked by all of the outstanding technical and musical mastery already displayed. There was a work by Villa-Lobos but a work by the Brazilian composer and songwriter Antonio (Tom) Jobim was one of the most interesting works on the program. Jobim’s international fame was based on the worldwide popularity of his song "The Girl from Ipanema" but his compositional talents covered a wide range of genres.
The Assads then played music written for the gothic film A Crónica da Casa Assassinada (The Story of the Murdered House), based on a book by Lucio Cardoso. They recreated the slightly creepy mood of the film, a descent into madness, in the four short selections from the film score. It stood out because of the completely different musical style they summoned to imply the visuals.
The other special work ended the program: “Suite Brasileria” by Sergio Assad. The first movement, Baiao, was a virtuosic explosion specifically written to display the brothers’ abilities. The second movement was quiet and expressive while the last movement was filled with complex harmonies and jazzy cross rhythms. The ending was the most exciting music on the program, and it energized the audience into an appreciative standing ovation.