​​From the Spring 2019 Issue of Clef Notes Chicagoland Journal for the Arts

Since his New York Philharmonic debut under the baton of conductor Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos, acclaimed classical guitarist Pablo Sáinz Villegas has been on a whirlwind performance schedule spanning over 40 countries with some of the most prestigious orchestras on the globe. Among them the Philharmonic of Israel, the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the San Francisco Symphony and the Boston Symphony Orchestra are just the tip of the iceberg with Villegas' schedule.

The La Rioja, Spain native stands today as the vanguard in symphonic guitar and the heir apparent to his idol, legendary Spanish guitarist Andrés Segovia. His work with Maestro Plácido Domingo has held him in such high esteem with the tenor and conductor that Domingo has dubbed him “the master of the guitar.” His new duo album with the maestro is just one of the honors his talent has earned. The New York Times has praised Villegas for his “… virtuosic playing characterized by irresistible exuberance” and as the unofficial “global ambassador for Spanish guitar” (Billboard Magazine), he is committed to the development of repertoire for the genre.

Chicago audiences enjoyed an intimate introduction to Villegas’ talents this winter with a universally lauded recital at Harris Theater for Music and Dance. But this spring, Villegas will be in residence with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in a performance befitting the rich history and drama of the music of his beloved La Rioja.

​I had an opportunity to talk with Villegas this winter and discovered that not only is he passionate about the Spanish guitar repertoire he promotes so vociferously, but also the sheer experience of music and the wonders it conveys when it is shared, that and “just about any kind of dark chocolate cake.”

As a young man growing up in La Rioja, Spain, what first inspired you to study music?

Andrés Segovia was my biggest inspiration. I watched him first on a black and white TV at the age of 6, and I was so touched by the experience that I asked my parents for guitar lessons.

At the age of seven I went on stage for the first time and that day changed my life…in that moment I felt the magical musical connection with the audience and from that day on it was my desire to make the stage my home.

What was it like collaborating with the great tenor Placido Domingo on Volver?

​Collaborating with Plácido Domingo is simply a dream come true. The making of this recording is one of the most beautiful gifts and highlights of my life and career. Beyond being one of the most beloved voices of our time, Plácido is a human being full of light, passion and inspiration who has made me a better human being simply by spending time with him. I am grateful to have received his invitation to share this journey, to make music together and to bring poetry into the air.

How did the opportunity for the collaboration come about?

It happened magically and I’d say very casually. It all started with a phone call from Plácido Domingo the day after our very first concert together at the Santiago Bernabeu Stadium—in front of 85,000 people. I picked up the phone and there was Maestro Domingo telling me he had enjoyed so much our performance that he would like to record an album with me. It all started from there.

In many ways, you carry the baton of Maestro Domingo and Andrés Segovia in propelling Spanish culture through your work. Is that something that impacts your programming? 

Yes, it is a very exciting responsibility that I assume with the naturality of being from Spain and playing the guitar. The guitar is one of the few instruments from its origins in the 16th century that is fully linked to a country and its culture: Spain. Being from these roots it is a very personal, genuine and authentic connection with the instrument’s cultural history, with its repertoire and its legacy looking towards the 21st century. Art is based on excellence and authenticity and I feel very fortunate to play my instrument as an extension of my Spanish roots, my culture and emotions.

Then is it also important for you to maintain balance in your repertoire? 

As a musician I have always enjoyed exploring the widest possible range of repertoire. Beyond its classical Spanish works, I have delved deep into its vast selection of music from historic scores by Bach to Latin American music such as Villa-Lobos and to contemporary music with extreme complexity, such as works by Berio and Corigliano. My desire is to continue this fascinating exploration of the repertoire that already exists and to champion new music for the guitar.

You had the opportunity to give the world premiere of John Williams’ first composition for guitar, Rounds. Tell me how that came about?

In 2012, friend and guitarist Christopher Parkening called me and shared the news that John Williams was composing his first solo guitar piece. I had won the inaugural Christopher Parkening Guitar Competition in 2006 and so he was offering me the honor to play the premiere. John Williams additionally had invited me to his home in Los Angeles to work together on the piece. I was beyond excited.

And what was it like working with Maestro Williams on the world premiere?

Music is the language of emotions. It’s about humanity. It’s about inspiring people. The whole musical process is based on technique and musicality. But after that, what really makes music transcendental are the emotions that you put into the notes. You infuse emotional intention into the music. This is something I perceived and learned, from Maestro Williams.

Through our time together, he taught me that there is only one way to convey emotions in music. It is by being human before anything else. Being humble, being at the service of the music. We do what we do for the people — for them to enjoy and to be touched. That will only happen if we, as performers, if he as a composer is able to really connect with those emotions of what being human is about. It is about stirring that with the audience in a very noble and humble and generous way.

Working with a living composer to present their work to the world for the very first time must be a very different experience than the customary composition study of a decades- or even centuries-old work. What is it like gaining access to the composer’s input?

It is a privilege, I have had the immense fortune to work with contemporary composers as Helmut Lachenmann, George Crumb, John Williams and many others. Simply having the opportunity to observe them, to look into their eyes, and admire how they experience the process of bringing alive the sounds from their scores into to the air, getting to know them, sharing the vulnerability of the human condition, their passion that pushes them to expand their creations...there is nothing compared to this. It is about sharing the magic of music with its creator.

For the bulk of your career, you have immersed yourself in the music of Spanish composers and you carry with you a wealth of knowledge and a performance platform that few guitarists today enjoy. How important is it to you to pass on that repertoire and culture to the next generation of musicians?

It is so beautiful to look back into your roots and feel the gratitude to all the musicians and teachers that gave the best of themselves so that younger generations could keep carrying forward the torch of wisdom. I received the most valuable heritage from Maestro Andrés Segovia through my teachers that studied with him. Education is an important part that defines us as human beings and as a society. Music is a great way to transmit values and I believe the guitar is one of the most democratic and popular instruments to do so.

What has been the most memorable stop for you thus far on your most recent tour?

I choose two of them...when I played recently at Carnegie Hall to celebrate the Grammys in New York City. Being on the same stage where all the great masters of music have been and being the first solo guitarist to play there since Andrés Segovia did 31 years ago was unforgettable.

A second stop was recently playing in another legendary stage such as: the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam ... it has formidable acoustics that made me feel like I was in the living room with some friends ... well with two thousand good friends!

Your performance here at the Grant Park Music Festival was one of the highlights of the season. But it certainly wasn’t your first open air venue performance. How do you accommodate the demands of an open air venue like GPO when performing an instrument with such aural sensitivity like guitar?

The guitar can be played with two very different personalities that come forth depending on the occasion. When the performance is at a small intimate hall, the guitar has a magical capacity to invite people in and it is possible to present the softest sounds. Alternatively, when playing with an orchestra and even more when playing an outdoor performance such as at a stadium, the personality is extroverted, unrestrained, it is making a statement. Even body movements in my playing accompany and bring to life these alternate personalities.

You’ll perform Rodrigo’s emotional Concierto de Aranjuez with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra under the baton of Giancarlo Guerrero this spring. What is it about the composition that resonates so strongly with fans of Spanish guitar?

This masterful concerto composed by Joaquín Rodrigo has three movements. The first is inspired in the Spanish flamenco rhythms which are fully grounded and, contrastingly, the third movement is inspired in the folk music of Spain where dancers typically jump up into the air. Amid these two opposing forces is a dramatic second movement that conveys the loss of a child sharing the story of his wife’s miscarriage. Rodrigo explained that this pain in his music represents a conversation with God through which he transmits his grievance and poses the question: why did you take him? At the end of the orchestra's cadenza, there are three notes that are acceptance and redemption. Emotions are universal. It is a story that connects with any human being.

Does performing such a well-known work like Concierto pose challenges that unknown works like the Williams’ Rounds don’t?

The Aranjuez Concerto is one of the most performed works of all time, yet I believe that what matters most is that when playing it, my interpretation is personal, authentic and honest. It’s about connecting with the piece every time, being loyal to the score and delivering all the demanding musical and technical elements the piece requires.

What is your favorite pastime away from the concert stage?

Time outdoors and in nature is where I find most of my inspiration, that is where I effortlessly reconnect with inner quietness which is the space of music creation. If that time is additionally accompanied with friends and family it’s even better. Sharing good moments is what gives sense to our lives.

Pablo Sáinz Villegas will be guest artist with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in a performance of Rodrigo's Concierto de Aranjuez May 23 - 26, 2019.

Q&A with Classical Guitarist Pablo Sáinz Villegas

The artist will perform Rodrigo's Concierto de Aranjuez with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra this May.

By Fred Cummings

Spanish classical guitarist Pablo Sainz VIllegas will perform with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra this spring (photo courtesy of Pablo Sainz Villegas)

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