Sérgio Assad

Born 1952

Sérgio Assad

Composer

Biography

Sérgio Assad has long been one of the most recognised figures of the classical guitar world. Beginning as a virtuoso performer in a duo with his brother, he quickly began enlarging the repertoire through extraordinary arrangements and transcriptions, and, in later years, developed a serious and vibrant voice as a composer. His works, always crafted with surprising insights gained from his technical abilities as a player, are frequently performed by guitarists around the world.

Assad was born in the town of Mococa in the state of São Paulo, Brazil. Growing up in a musical family, both he and his brother Odair began playing guitar at a young age and soon formed a guitar duo. Their first serious studies were with the Brazilian guitarist Monina Tavora, who had been a pupil of the legendary Spanish guitaristAndrés Segovia. Assad continued his education at the Escola Nacional de Música in Rio de Janeiro, where he studied conducting and composition.

After winning the 1979 Young Artists Competition in Bratislava, the Assad Brothers quickly rose to become one of the premiere guitar duos in the world. Even in the brothers’ early years, Assad was busy making arrangements for their repertoire. Latin American music was an important focus, with arrangements of traditional Brazilian pieces and works byVilla-Lobos and Ginastera. He was, however, equally prolific in arrangements of pieces from other eras, ranging from Baroque harpsichord works to 19th and 20th century piano repertoire. Numerous composers began writing works for the duo, includingAstor Piazzolla, Jorge Morel, Terry Riley, and fellow countrymen Radamés Gnattali and Edino Krieger. Over the decades they have collaborated with countless acclaimed artists including Gidon Kremer, Paquito D’Rivera, and Dawn Upshaw. In 2000, the Assads began a collaboration with the renowned violinist Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg under the umbrella of the Nonesuch record label; the trio focused on traditional and Gypsy songs from around the world. In 2014 the duo celebrated 50 years of performing together.

Assad has also become a unique and influential figure in modern composition for the classical guitar. His works range in inspiration from the traditional sounds of his home country to more rigorous modern languages, but all are remarkable for their ingenious use of the idiosyncrasies of the guitar. Despite the possible guitar-centric nature of the works, they are diverse and well-crafted, avoiding the usual pitfalls of performer/composers.

One of the earliest works, which has remained one of the most popular, is the Aquarelle, from 1986. Consisting of a Divertimento, Valseana, and Preludio e Toccatina, the very conservative movement names give little indication as to the surprising blend of angular, virtuosic modern writing, and ecstatic Brazilian rhythms and lyrical melodies. The textures in the outer movements seem impossibly dense for the guitar – an indication of his knowledge of the technicalities of the instrument. WhenAquarelle was selected as the required piece for the Guitar Foundation of America Competition in 2002 it was immediately injected into the mainstream guitar repertoire.

After more than a decade of writing exclusively for the guitar, in 1996 Assad composed a chamber work for flute, viola, and guitar entitledWinter Impressions . The first movement consists of a motoric theme with an interlude of expressive dialogues between the three instruments. The lyrical second movement sets the guitar in an accompaniment role underneath a duet between the two melodic instruments, while the third begins with a minimalist introduction before veering into jazzier realms, with a solo guitar interlude in the middle, reminiscent of a cadenza.

2003 saw the first output of the ongoing collaboration of Sérgio Assad with legendary cellistYo-Yo Ma for his album “Obrigado Brazil”. Featuring a lineup of musicians including Cyro Baptista, Paquito D’Rivera, Rosa Passos, Kathryn Stott, and the Assad brothers themselves. Sérgio Assad contributed one of his own compositions alongside several of his arrangements. A short, lyrical work,Menino (2003) begins with interlocking parts, one in harmonics on the two guitars, before the expressive cello joins in. The work falls into running, thrilling lines traded between the three musicians, with a brief cadenza for the cello, before the guitars run back to the original theme.

Coming from an eclectic ethnic background, Assad set out to explore his musical ancestry in a suite entitledBack to Our Roots (2010), a collaboration with his eldest daughter and fellow composer/performer Clarice Assad, which resulted in a four-movement work for voice, piano, guitar, and sazouki. With elements of Brazilian music, jazz, and middle-eastern melodies and rhythmic patterns discovered in their Lebanese heritage, the work is filled with extreme virtuosity and beauty.

Another major work from 2010 was Assad’s Phases – a concerto for two guitars and orchestra. Premiered by the Seattle Symphony in 2011, the work is in three movements entitled “Recollections”, “Old Portrait”, and “Resurgence.” The movements have a huge range of character, frequently straying far from both the Brazilian and modernist elements that define much of Assad’s language with soaring melodies and lush orchestration. The explosive solo parts, however, are obviously composed with the resources of the duo in mind, and the work is a true virtuosic showcase for the soloists.

Assad won his first Latin Grammy Award in 2002 for the album “Sérgio and Odair Assad Play Piazzolla”, and went on to win again in 2008 and to be nominated twice more in 2010 for Best Classical Contemporary Composition. Assad was on the faculty of the Conservatoire Royal de Musique of Brussels from 1994-1996, the Chicago College of Performing Arts of Roosevelt University from 2003-2006, and is currently teaching at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music.

Long recognised for his talent in performing and arranging. Sergio Assad’s most profound influence may well turn out to be his own compositions. Emerging from several important traditions of the classical guitar, and with insights gained from a life of performing, his pieces transcend the instrument and draw out surprising new textures and harmonies. The result is always powerful, with equal parts beauty and virtuosity, assuring the compositions a place in guitar concert programmes for years to come.

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