From all outward appearances, Pablo Sáinz Villegas has led a charmed life. A native of the La Rioja region of northern Spain, he started playing the guitar at age six, and by his teens was routinely winning guitar prizes, including the prestigious Andrés Segovia Award and, much later, the Gold Medal at the first Christopher Parkening International Guitar Competition; more than 30 in all.
These honors have led to numerous recordings and a globe-trotting career (nearly 40 countries on five continents) as a solo performer and/or a featured player working with orchestras and chamber groups (more than 70 different ones so far), as well as appearances in smaller configurations. This year alone, he has played in Spain several times, Germany, Peru, Brazil, and in 12 US states (plus Puerto Rico), most with local orchestras, many featuring Joaquín Rodrigo’s Concierto de Aranjuez. (Next year he’s featuring Rodrigo’s Fantasia para un Gentilhombre at a number of his symphonic dates.)
Villegas has always used his guitar artistry as a springboard to do charity work, dating back to when he was eight years old in La Rioja and his mother urged him to play for the elderly in nursing homes. Within the past decade, he formed a group called The Music Without Borders Legacy, which promotes classical guitar, and music in general, among disadvantaged kids in San Diego, California, and Tijuana, Mexico. He has helped reach some 15,000 children, and more recently he’s shifted his attentions to La Rioja, working with the help of a bank to start music programs during what has been an economically challenging time for the region.
Though he still spends much time in Spain, Villegas has lived in New York City for 15 years, and it was at nearby Westchester Studios that he recorded his excellent and superb-sounding new album of solo-guitar pieces, Americano (on the Harmonia Mundi label) with noted producer/engineer Adam Abeshouse. The disc is a sort of musical tour of the Americas, with Villegas performing pieces from Brazil (Heitor Villa-Lobos, Luiz Bonfá, João Pernambuco), Venezuela (Antonio Lauro, Pedro Elias-Gutiérrez), Paraguay (Agustín Barrios), Mexico (Agustín Lara), and the United States (John Williams, Leonard Bernstein). Oh, and there’s one geographical exception—a tango from French composer Roland Dyens. But it’s a lively and wide-ranging program that moves easily among styles—from folk dances (jaropo, samba, tango, waltz, maxixe) to a medley from the Broadway show West Side Story to American bluegrass (which also features rhythm guitarist James Chirillo). It’s an invigorating ride, magnificently played.
CG caught up with Villegas in Oklahoma City at the 2015 Guitar Foundation of America convention in June. I found him to be passionate, articulate, warm, witty, and, like his music, thoroughly engaging. We started by discussing his fondness for the Concierto de Aranjuez and for playing concertos in general.
CLASSICAL GUITAR: I would think it would be a challenge to play an iconic piece such as the Aranjuez with different orchestras, where every conductor is going to have a slightly different interpretation and the instrumentation might be different.
PABLO VILLEGAS: When you’re playing with orchestras, of course, there is the orchestra and the conductor and then there is you, so in the end it’s trying to get an agreement between these elements, and the most important ones are going to be the conductor and yourself. The conductor is usually very open to what the soloist has to say, because they trust that you know the piece even better than they do sometimes—because we have spent years of our lives learning the piece, going back to the piece, trying to find the magic of that piece between the notes; so they’re open to letting you find what you want to say through this piece. But I also am always open to their ideas, because that enriches the interpretation. Sometimes they might have a perspective that is different from mine and that’s always going to benefit the piece in the end. That process of discovering the piece together is very important.
For me, before going to the first rehearsal with the orchestra, it’s important to talk to the conductor, get to know him, and then go over the piece—not only defining the tempi, but also the general emotional statements you want to transmit through it, and the general musical shape of it—the parts where you want to create momentum, the parts that are most emotional for you in each movement. In what places do we need to be careful to play together; perhaps make eye contact? There are all these different subtleties that, depending on the conductor, can be different.
And as you said, each orchestra is going to bring a different emotion and atmosphere to a piece. In the end it’s, how do you bring the three personalities together and then invite the audience—the fourth personality—into it? If the three personalities on the stage are in synch, it’s going to be much easier for the audience. They feel welcomed to that journey. As a soloist playing with an orchestra, it’s nice to be open to what the whole group wants to say. You accept it as a unique version in the moment in that place.
CG: What other concertos do you like to play?
VILLEGAS: I’ve played so many guitar concerti and I can honestly say I like many things about all of them. Of course, besides the Rodrigo Aranjuez and Fantasia [para un Gentilhombre], I’ve played the most traditional ones—the Villa-Lobos [Concerto for Guitar and Orchestra]; the Ponce [Concierto de la Sur] which I recorded with Alondro de la Parra; the Castelnuovo-Tedesco; older ones by Giuliani, Vivaldi. But I’ve also played some of the more off-stream concerti, like Lorenzo Palomo’s Nocturnos de Andalucia, which is a piece that was commissioned by Pepe Romero. Actually, Lorenzo Palomo is writing a new guitar concerto right now, and that should be ready next season.
CG: What sort of input would you have in something like that? Is he sending you ideas, or are you giving suggestions?
VILLEGAS: I like to give a lot of freedom to the composer, and it depends on how open he is to me being involved in the process. For me, it’s important to talk before he starts composing the piece. If the composer knows the guitar, or doesn’t know the guitar, that’s going to make a difference, because if he doesn’t, he’s going to need more guidance on how to approach the instrument and the orchestra. In this case, with Lorenzo Palomo, he knows the guitar and he has composed a lot of things for guitar.
Other contemporary concerti I’ve played: I did the premiere of Tomas Marco’s Concierto de Córdoba a couple of years ago in Córdoba, Spain [the piece is dedicated to Villegas]. Also, Joan Guinjoan has a beautifully written guitar concerto. Another recent concerto I’m playing is called Travadors by John Corigliano [debuted by Sharon Isbin in 1993]. I played it in Lima [Peru] last month—it’s so beautiful and atmospheric, and the guitar is so well treated.
Tomorrow night, I’m playing the premiere of one by Sergio Assad called Concierto Popular do Rio. A lot of the concerts I’m doing now—maybe 80 percent—are with orchestras, and 20 percent [solo] recitals. So, one of my missions is to develop the symphonic repertoire for the guitar. At the beginning of this process, I asked Sergio Assad to write a concerto and he agreed and was excited about it. This year is the 50th anniversary of the Duo Assad so it was good timing. He asked me, “What kind of concerto do you want?” I told him, “Something that speaks to you, to your truth,” and also, “I want this to excite general audiences. I don’t want it to be too intellectual.” He said he was open to write in the Spanish style, Argentinean, or Brazilian. I said, “If you’re asking me, I say write something Brazilian because that’s your culture, that’s your language.” He liked the idea, so he wrote this concerto we are about to premiere. In the last movement, which is named after a neighborhood in Rio de Janeiro, there’s even a samba.
It’s been very exciting working with him. He was in charge of everything, and the guitar parts are beautifully designed. I think people are really going to like it. Orchestras are always looking for new things to play.
CG: Do orchestras differ much continent to continent? You mentioned playing in Peru recently: Is there a particular style or strength of South American orchestras?
VILLEGAS: I’m not sure there is a South American orchestra style, but there is definitely a style for a Russian orchestra, for example, and there are certain subtle differences between orchestras in the United States, Russia, and Europe. Like, the brasses here in the United States are fantastic, amazing! The strings in Russia are so good, so strong, and can play anything. But there aren’t as many differences now, because musicians travel more—there are Russian musicians in the United States and European musicians in South America, and so on.
CG: Let’s talk about your new CD, Americano. It’s an interesting concept to, in effect, unite the musical traditions of North, Central, and South America. How was the idea born?
VILLEGAS: Everything started when I met John Williams, the film composer [Star Wars, Jaws, Schindler’s List; he’s had 49 Academy Award nominations]. He’s a good friend of Christopher Parkening and he was composing a piece for the Parkening International Guitar Competition, and since I had won the 2006 competition, Mr. Parkening asked me to premiere that piece [“Rounds”]. I said, “Wow, that’s a great honor!” So I went to LA and John Williams invited me to his house two days before the premiere and it was amazing to meet him. He’s such a humble, beautiful human being. He welcomed me into his home, sat me by his piano and we went through the piece over a few hours. Everything was so well-written.
After that I asked him for permission to record it and he said he was honored. So I thought, “If I’m going to record it, how can I build a concept around it?” And I had been thinking about how the guitar is so popular in these two huge American continents. Not just there, of course—it’s become the most popular instrument in the world. So I thought that for this CD, I would explore the evolution and repertoire of the guitar in the American continents. I looked at it as a musical journey: A guitar flying in from Spain, and since I’ve lived many years in New York, it was also partly my own story—a Spaniard going to New York.
I decided to start the journey exploring different countries—Brazilian music with Villa-Lobos, and different folk music that inspired Villa-Lobos; and his music also has the inspiration of French music—Nadia Boulanger and all these influences from Europe. So it’s a mixture of European influences on the American continents. Like the jaropo, this Venezuelan music is a mixture of two rhythms—6/8 and 3/4—playing at the same time. In Spain, those are traditional rhythms, and we combine them, but we don’t play them simultaneously. The buleria is that combination, or a petenera. But in South America, they combined both rhythms and create a new one.
CG: Can you articulate some of the other differences between the great South American writers and the great Spanish writers? What is “South American” about Barrios that you’re not going to hear in Turina or Torroba?
VILLEGAS: That’s an excellent question. If I had to give a score, I’d say they’re on the same level. The South American continent has produced so much repertoire, and the guitar has been a very important instrument for the culture there. If I think of it in an analytical way, in Spain we have the influence of the European tradition, and also the particular Spanish traditions: flamenco music on one hand—Falla, Granados, and others inspired by the roots of flamenco—and also from the folk music of Spain. Sometimes people don’t think about these two roots.
The flamenco music is about grounded rhythms: You never see a flamenco dancer jumping in the air! They’re always stamping on the floor. But folk music is all about leaping and being up there—the jotas. I danced that as a kid. These two opposite forces form the basis for so much Spanish music—these two rhythms.
I would say South American music is also defined by rhythms, but in a different way. As I said before, the rhythms in South America developed in all these unique directions because of the influence of the native cultures that were there. So you get the samba, bossa nova, chacarera, jaropa. The versatility and diversity of South American music is so rich, it’s been a great way to complement the repertoire of the guitar. “Complement” isn’t even the right word. It’s more than that.
It’s helped make the guitar what it is. So, it’s the tradition of the Spanish repertoire and then this huge contribution from the Americas.
CG: The Barrios pieces you chose to record are ones a lot of people know.
VILLEGAS: That’s true, but for me, “Un Sueño en la Floresta” is one of the most soulful pieces ever written for the guitar, so I couldn’t leave it off! Barrios is very important to this CD. Back when there were no airplanes, he would cross the Atlantic [from South America] for two months to tour in Europe and he was very popular there. So there was this interchange between Europe and South America. He was so proud of his culture and he brought some of that to Europe and influenced people there.
CG: I hadn’t heard these versions of songs from West Side Story. The arrangements are by Jorge Morel?
VILLEGAS: And further revised by Miguel Ubis.
CG: I was pleasantly surprised at how smooth the transition is between Agustin Lara’s “Granada” and Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story suite.
VILLEGAS: Well, it’s just crossing the border from Mexico into the US! [Laughs] And “Granada” was also arranged by Morel and Ubis.
CG: Which brings us to the American music selections. “Kansas City Kitty” reminds me of Django Reinhardt’s version of American jazz, whereas “Dear Old Dixie” and “Big-Eared Mule” sound like more traditional American folk-country songs.
VILLEGAS: Exactly. That also has a story: I was at the Grand Teton Music Festival [in Wyoming] two years ago and while we were there, our friend Tom Miller said, “I think you should listen to some real bluegrass music from this region.” Of course I had heard banjo music before, but [later] when I thought about what piece to include from the United States, I said, “What if I could play some banjo music on the guitar?”
CG: When it says in the notes on the album that you re-strung your guitar for those “banjo” pieces, what does that mean?
VILLEGAS: I converted my six strings into a five-string guitar and the fifth string I changed it to the prima—the first string. So you put the first string on the fifth and then you change the E into D, I think, and then you tune it in G major. You put the sixth string away and you have a banjo!
CG: It has that metallic banjo sound.
VILLEGAS: I know! I didn’t want to play banjo, although I probably could have done that. “Let’s make this a wink to the history of the banjo and the popular music in the US.” So I was so excited the first time I heard how much it sounded like a banjo.
CG: Is anyone horrified?
VILLEGAS: So far, no.
CG: It’s early.
VILLEGAS: [Laughs] Are you horrified?
CG: No, but it’s a bit of a jolt, an adjustment, at the end of the album after what’s come before.
VILLEGAS: It’s only about three minutes. These are almost like bonus pieces, like encore pieces. I think it’s good to—
CG: Shake people up?
VILLEGAS: Yes. Even if they’re horrified. Because it’s new. People are often horrified by new things. I’m not going to become a banjo player! [Laughs] And in the end it’s about music. It’s about emotions. It’s about having a good time. We’re there to entertain and inspire people through music.
We are experiencing a beautiful moment with the guitar. There are great, amazing guitarists all over the world. The classical-music world, in terms of symphonies, is paying a lot more attention to the guitar because they’re looking for new audiences, and the new audiences relate more to the guitar than other instruments. There are audiences who have never been in a hall to listen to a symphony. The guitar speaks to them. More and more, orchestras are open to exploring the borders [between music styles] that 20 years ago were like . . . a sacrilege, a sin. Look at [cellist] Yo-Yo Ma. He plays Schumann one day and the next day he’s playing the Silk Road [a free-wheeling ensemble of musicians from different traditions] with banjo music and all these other things. All these people are trying different things and that’s good for music. It brings in new perspectives, new ways of looking at music. Why not, if you do it with respect and caring and putting your emotions into it? That’s what art and music is about. Music is very profound and it’s the language of emotions. And our job is to inspire people. But we are also entertainers.
This article originally appeared in the Winter 2015 issue of Classical Guitar.