BY BLAIR JACKSON | FROM THE FALL 2019 ISSUE OF CLASSICAL GUITAR
When I finally reach the perennially globe-hopping guitarist Pablo Sainz Villegas by phone in mid-March, it turns out he’s only about an hour from CG’s office in Northern California, relaxing and recharging before his next concerts.
“I just played with the Oregon Symphony and my next performance is with the Vancouver Symphony,” the ever-cheerful and optimistic Spaniard says. “I played three nights, and this is the third time I’ve played with the symphony; I have a very good relationship with them. We played the Albéniz Concerto by Stephen Goss, and Steve came all the way to be part of the performances, and he gave a pre-talk. It went very well. It was the first time I played it and it was beautiful and memorable. I think the audience really enjoyed it.
“The last time in Oregon, we played John Corigliano’s Troubadours [Variations for Guitar and Chamber Orchestra, 1993]; this time it was the Albéniz Concerto. I am always open to new pieces and new commissions. That’s part of the responsibility I have as a musician: supporting new creations for the guitar and bringing new repertoire to different audiences.”
Which is not to say that he is about to stop playing Rodrigo’s Concierto de Aranjuez all over the world. “I love playing the Aranjuez; it’s the piece I play the most,” he says. “I never get tired of it, because it is so well-written, with so many layers to explore every time I play it. It’s a constant process of discovery for me. At the same time, it’s nice to introduce other pieces to the presenters and to symphonies. I’ve premiered a few guitar concertos, including one by Sérgio Assad—the Concerto Popular do Rio —and I think it’s important to support living composers, to bring new music and the [classical] guitar to the next generation and add something new to the repertoire.”
A couple of weeks before our phone interview, I had seen Villegas play a superb solo concert in San Francisco’s historic Herbst Theatre. That night, after winning over the adoring audience with a program celebrating the 125th birthday of Segovia (pieces by Villa-Lobos, Tárrega, Granados, Albéniz, et al), the guitarist went directly from the stage to a waiting car to take him to the San Francisco Airport so he could take a late-night flight to Guadalajara, Mexico, where the following night he would perform a concert at a sold-out soccer stadium with the legendary Spanish opera singer Plácido Domingo.
Indeed, it is that duo’s wonderful recent album for Sony Classical, called Volver, that is the main reason for our interview. It is the first recording Domingo has made with a guitarist, and the first time Villegas has worked with a baritone. It consists of 12 pieces—nine duet songs (occasionally augmented with tasteful orchestrations played by the Florida Philharmonic, under the baton of Argentinian pianist, conductor, and composer Nazareno Andorno), and three solo guitar pieces featuring Villegas alone: Barrios’ gorgeous tremolo workout Una limosna por el amor de dios, a lilting version of the much-loved Cuban folk tune Guantanamera, and a new Sérgio Assad piece called Valeria’s Bossa (named after Pablo’s wife, Valeria Catán). Assad is credited with the guitar arrangements on the album, and they are all sophisticated, imaginative, and, on the vocal numbers, perfectly complementary with Domingo’s style and range. It’s a fantastic album that should delight fans of both artists.
CLASSICAL GUITAR: I’m impressed that Plácido is popular enough to play in a stadium in Guadalajara.
PABLO VILLEGAS: Yes, well, Plácido Domingo is such a popular and inspiring figure. I think he might be the only classical musician who can fill up a stadium. What makes him so great is many things, but one of the most important for me is his humanity. He’s so humble and also so tender. When he’s onstage he’s able to communicate all that to the audience, and that transforms people when they hear him. Even in a soccer stadium.
And then there’s the amount of work he can handle: He’s so passionate about what he does that he’s constantly immersed in different projects. Of course, he does operas all the time now, as a baritone. [He originally was a tenor.] He conducts operas and symphonic works, and he also does these galas and projects where he collaborates with musicians from the pop and folk traditions, and he creates all these wonderful experiences for everyone. It’s a beautiful way to introduce opera to some people, too, because he also sings famous arias in the stadiums. He really believes in the power of music, and that music is for all.
CG: I think the first time I was aware of you playing with him was when you sang Adios Granada [a highlight of the album] with him at a stadium in Madrid in 2016. Was that the first time you performed with him? How did that come about?
VILLEGAS: Yes. He knew about me. And living in New York [where Pablo also has a part-time residence], he had attended a performance I did with the New York Philharmonic, where I was playing La Vida Breve by Falla. Later I met two of his sons who live in New York City on different occasions. Also, my wife, Valeria, has an uncle who was an opera composer—Daniel Catán [1949–2011]—and he composed an opera called Il Postino that Plácido Domingo had sung a lot. That was prior to our meeting him, so it’s magical how things aligned.
So, we ended up meeting and then there was this concert at the Real Madrid soccer stadium, and many artists who play different styles of music were going to be invited. A month before the date, he called me up and said, “Pablo, I think this would be a beautiful opportunity to collaborate. I was thinking about us doing something together.” That day was the first time I played with Plácido and, of course, the first time I played in a stadium in front of 85,000 people! I couldn’t believe it. “Is this real?”
The following day he called my manager and said, “I want to record my next album with Pablo.” I thought, “Wow, really?” I didn’t think it could get better than doing the concert! And that’s really when my friendship with him started. It went from a professional relationship to more of a personal one, and it’s been beautiful. So, first there was the process of brainstorming and figuring out the concept and what we would record together.
CG: What was that process like?
VILLEGAS: At the beginning, one of the things Plácido and I talked about was how the guitar is the instrument of the people, and the instrument to sing songs. So, it was a matter of going back to that nature of the instrument. There is so much repertoire written for the guitar and the voice, so why don’t we explore that?
It was also a way to unify the Latino and Spanish- and Portuguese-speaking countries through the guitar. The guitar comes from Spain, but it goes through the Americas, as well. It was going to the roots to find the songs that were, first, natural for the voice and guitar, and then were also an important part of Plácido’s history. All of those songs meant something special to him. I remember being with him while he was sitting at the piano, and he would just start singing, accompanying himself on piano, and the songs that came to his mind—he has a fantastic memory, so he would remember all the lyrics the first time playing it! He’d say, “This is a song my mom used to sing when I was a boy.” Or, “This is a song I remember from one day the whole family was together and this happened . . .” So, all the songs had an emotional connection to his life. And a few of them were songs he’d sung before and even recorded.
For him it was like volver [“return” in Spanish]—going back to those memories. And for me it was like sharing with him those moments and his excitement about those parts of his life. It was beautiful to accompany him on that journey. We had so many songs. We probably had a list of 20 or 25, and then we had to narrow it to the ones on the CD. So that was the process.
The guitar has a very Latino heart. Plácido is from Spain, but he is married to a Mexican wife, so the Mexicans think he is from Mexico, and in Spain they think he is from Spain! [Laughs] And, of course, I am from Spain and Valeria is from Mexico, so we share that duality and a willingness and a desire to bring people together and unify them across waters. That was the intention.
CG: There’s a fairly large body of work pairing classical guitar and soprano—de Falla, Lorca; the art songs—so how does that change the guitar part when you’re suddenly accompanying a baritone? It’s a different range, obviously.
VILLEGAS: That was part of the discovery for me and for Plácido, too. On previous CDs—and he has dozens—Plácido would sing with an orchestra, or it would be an opera. But as far as I know, he has never recorded a CD with just a piano, not any other instrument, as a duo. So, it was a chance for him to explore another side of him—in this case, to explore the intimacy of just a voice and a guitar. We wanted it to be like Plácido and me being in your living room, playing and singing for you.
I think Sérgio Assad did an amazing job with the guitar arrangements. We talked about it a lot and he said, “I think it would be a good idea if we explored the higher register of the guitar, so we create a balance between the deep baritone voice and the light, treble side of the guitar.” As you can hear, Plácido’s not really singing like a dramatic opera baritone; he’s singing more with a timbre that is silkier and intimate. It was more like singing a song to your beloved one, whispering in their ear.
CG: But with the voice of Domingo! That’s quite a whisper!
VILLEGAS: [Laughs] That’s true. But it was a very natural combination.
CG: I like that arrangement of Guantanamera, which is quite different than others.
VILLEGAS: It’s an arrangement by a Cuban guitarist named Ñico Rojas who passed away a few years ago [1921-2008]. I like that arrangement a lot, too. It brought in a new rhythm from the son cubano that is not usually explored on the classical guitar. That was actually the only piece where Sérgio did not compose and arrange the guitar part.
Sérgio was such an important figure in pulling the album together. I don’t know anyone who knows the guitar that well, and with his expressiveness he’s able to bring any arrangement to life. The guitar parts are very sophisticated and always very musical. He was the perfect collaborator for the album. And he was available at all times to make changes, to change the key, or whatever might be needed. It was a very intense recording process.
CG: Am I correct in assuming that the orchestral parts were overdubbed separately?
VILLEGAS: Yes, that’s right. Personally, I thought it felt fantastic with just the voice and guitar, but there were some artistic decisions made to bring in other layers to some of the songs—especially the boleros. I was fine with that. [Producer] Rafa Sardina and I get along so well. Recording it was a lot of fun. And I think it still sounds very much like a duo album.
I’m so grateful to Plácido because he wanted this to be a duo—a partnership of two musicians playing together. I was humbled by his generosity of sharing an album with me. And to also have three tracks to myself. I am profoundly grateful to him. From the beginning it was one of his wishes not to have the guitar be mere accompaniment, but to have solos, and there are also some beautiful guitar introductions—those are things Sérgio did so beautifully. It really was a team effort, and I’m so happy and proud of how it all came out.
* * *
Alas, there are no plans for a joint tour in support of the album, but it’s clear that the paths of these two virtuosos will cross again in the future, perhaps in another soccer stadium somewhere or in more intimate settings as schedules permit.
In the meantime, Villegas is on the road, as usual. In May alone, he was slated to perform with orchestras in Southern California, Switzerland, Texas, and, capping the month, making his debut fronting the world-renowned Chicago Symphony for four nights—quite an honor!