Letter from Japan: Pablo Villegas Reports on his Japanese Tour

Performing at Suntory Hall, Akitoshi Higashi Photo
From the Winter 2016 issue of Classical Guitar | BY PABLO SÁINZ VILLEGAS

August 1, 2016

Querido amigo,

Today is the last day of my summer tour through Japan with the National Orchestra of Spain. I am thrilled to share some thoughts about these last 20 magical days and the many different emotions that have passed through me as fast as the bullet trains we took every morning to get to the next concert. It feels almost like a hazy, continuous dream, overflowing with impressions of the beautiful countryside we streaked by, the concerts we played every evening, the many fine hotels we stayed at, and the thousands of people in every hall we were able to touch through the music of our Spanish culture—so much linked in the public mind to the beloved Spanish guitar.

The tour was a celebration of my latest CD with the National Orchestra of Spain and admired maestro Juanjo Mena—Conciertos de Joaquín Rodrigo, featuring the three solo guitar concerti by Rodrigo—and also part of the worldwide celebration of last year’s 75th anniversary of Rodrigo’s treasured Concierto de Aranjuez, which premiered in Barcelona in 1940.

After a very long, but excitement- and anticipation-filled flight, our tour launched with the first concert in the city of Morioka, far to the north of Tokyo on the main island (Honshu), and from there our grand group of 82 musicians (plus their instruments!) traveled all around the country to the cities of Aomori, Tokyo, Niigata, Utsonomiya, Kyoto, Kagoshima (near the tip of the southernmost Kyushu island), and finally to Yamaguchi to end the tour on July 31.

Pablo Villegas Japan Collage Letter from Japan Classical Guitar Magazine

Since I usually travel as a soloist who often plays with local orchestras in the cities I visit, the energy of traveling with such a large group throughout a country was unique and incredibly fun. But these were (or mainly) Spaniards, too, all of us in a new land, and mostly around the same age, so making new friends was easy, and the friendships that were already there deepened. They are a formidable group of people who truly love what they do.

It wasn’t always easy getting about in such a large group. One of my favorite (though scary) moments was when we all had to run quite fast at a train station to catch the next bullet train, or we would miss that night’s concert. I wish I had caught that on video! I am sure we left a mark on all the restaurants we dined in around the halls, since considering the time restraints we faced in our day’s itinerary, we would all have dinner at the same time, so we’d overflow all the small local joints close by. Large groups of us would also go out after most concerts to visit karaoke bars, where we would unwind with some sake and sing together—often comically, as many of us musicians are not well-suited for singing.


The tour program was all Spanish music, designed to give a palpable taste of our homeland to Japanese audiences. We opened with lively music by Joaquín Turina, followed by the Aranjuez concerto, and then wrapped up the evening with the spirited music of our great composer Manuel de Falla. By this point, I have played the Aranjuez close to 200 times all around the world. It’s a piece that has become part of me, and as I close my eyes on stage, as I always do when playing, I can perfectly visualize the piece in its entirety in a three-dimensional perspective I’ve created, as if it were a sculpture, and I intricately know every single inch of it. Even so, I am amazed at how different the piece still feels every time I play it. Somehow, when I’m playing it, I am able to detach my mind from the music enough that I can really enjoy the small, infinite variables around me—the different orchestras, conductors and halls, and, of course, the audiences. It’s a feeling unlike any other I experience in playing music, so I’m always eager to enjoy it.

Pablo Villegas Talks About his New CD and the Challenges of Playing Concertos

I greatly admire Japanese culture, and as I stepped on every new stage with my guitar, I did it praising and honoring the values and morals of an ancient culture that still shapes daily life in much of Japan, despite the country’s firm embrace of avant-garde modernity. To me, each concert we played felt like a sacred musical offering, a ritual comparable in a way to a Japanese tea ceremony, the art or archery, or the delicate craft of calligraphy.

Our concert in Kyoto was particularly emotional. Spanish music often triggers fire and unbridled passion in listeners, but I will never forget noticing—as did some of my colleagues in the orchestra—several people in the audience crying during our performance, they were so moved. For me, there is not much more to ask for in music than to achieve that.

As you can imagine, too, playing my debut at the magnificent Suntory Hall in Tokyo was also special for me. This enormous hall felt like an intimate and cozy temple that night—it has some of the finest acoustics I’ve ever experienced. In fact, all of the venues we played in during the tour had stunning acoustics, excellent for both performers and audience. This gave me a tremendous feeling of freedom and confidence at these concerts, as I was playing without amplification.

Lastly, one of my favorite parts of the tour was the opportunity to meet so many people after each performance. The lines were long and I would spend up to an hour taking pictures, signing CDs, and sharing moments with Japanese audience members of all ages—and mostly without any words, since it was incredibly rare that anyone spoke English or Spanish. The music, of course, requires no language. And in the end, the music belongs to the audience and everything I do is for them.

I’m happy to report that Japan loves guitar, and I love Japan. I look forward to a lifelong relationship with this magnificent country and culture.

Hasta pronto amigo. Un abrazo,


This article originally appeared in the Winter 2016 issue of Classical Guitar.