[Scene Magazine] Globally-traveled Guitar Concerto with a Local Legacy
By Josef Woodard, News-Press Correspondent
Acclaimed Spanish-born guitarist Pablo Sáinz-Villegas is guest soloist with the Santa Barbara Symphony
To close out its 63rd season this weekend at the Granada Theatre, the Santa Barbara Symphony looks backward, and inward, while also making a forward-thinking gesture. On a program which features the old worldly graces of Carl Maria von Weber's Der Freischutz Overture and Anton Bruckner's "Romantic" Symphony No. 4 as grand symphonic finale, the real centerpiece of the concert is Elmer Bernstein's much-respected marvel, the Concerto for Guitar and Orchestra.
Penned in 1999 and dedicated to American classical guitar virtuoso Christopher Parkening, the widely-acclaimed Spanish-born guitarist Pablo Sainz Villegas will do honors on this respected entry in the slender ranks of popular guitar concertos.
Then there is the strong 805 angle. One of the more legendary film composers in the history of cinema, Mr. Bernstein, who passed away in 2004 at the age of 82, was for many years one of Santa Barbara's cultural celebrities, living (and working) in Hope Ranch and elsewhere. His massive filmography included early highlights such as the seminal jazz-flavored score for "Man with the Golden Arm," "The Magnificent Seven," "To Kill A Mockingbird," the Oscar-winning "Thoroughly Modern Millie," "Ghostbusters," several gigs with Martin Scorsese and much more.
But the composer--America's "other" Bernstein, after and alongside Leonard--also kept his hand in the field of "concert music." Far from being a Hollywood figure hiding behind gates in Santa Barbara and ignoring the community, he collaborated with the Santa Barbara Symphony and other local sources, including UCSB and the Santa Barbara International Film Festival. Among his "concert" works, his Guitar Concerto for Mr. Parkening earned special praise, and stage time.
Mr. Villegas may be an ideal instrumentalist for the task, as an accomplished guitarist well accustomed to the tricky dynamics of the guitar-with-orchestra world--including work with the New York Philharmonic, the Los Angeles Philharmonic--and whose list of world premieres includes the piece "Rounds," by another illustrious film composer, John Williams. The guitarist, who now lives in NYC, is also well-suited to the Spanish flavors embedded in the Bernstein Concerto.
Mr. Villegas, who has given a recital in Santa Barbara in the past but makes his orchestra debut here this weekend, offered some ideas and overview of his passionate life with his chosen instrument, in a recent interview. Speaking about his upcoming projects, he mentioned his excitement about a tour this July with the National Orchestra Spain, performing the three guitar concerti of Joaquin Rodrigo--whose "Concierto de Aranjuez" is still, by far, the best known and oft-performed guitar concerto in classical repertoire.
"I consider myself a musician of the people," he told me. "I want to continue inspiring them as much as they inspire me to continue evolving as a musician and as a human being. It is my desire to continue presenting the Spanish guitar in symphonic halls for people of the 21st century."
News-Press: The world of guitar concertos is a fairly specialized and rare medium within the standard orchestral repertoire, and one which usually means Rodrigo's "Concierto de Aranjuez" -- fantastic as that old favorite is. Are you excited to get a chance to expand the available guitar-orchestra repertoire, such as this program in Santa Barbara does?
Pablo Sainz Villegas: Definitely. It has always been a one of my goals to expand the repertoire of the symphonic guitar by commissioning new guitar concerti and playing wonderful existing ones that are not so well known such as Elmer Bernstein's Guitar Concerto. The guitar is a magnificent instrument that offers a unique range of expressive tools that make it one of the most expressive ones. I feel very fortunate to have this opportunity to continue expanding the legacy of such a beautiful instrument.
NP: Is there a particular kind of challenge and thrill for you to perform in that large orchestral context, and is it a very different experience than playing solo or in chamber settings?
PSV: The symphonic guitar is almost a different instrument than the one presented as a solo recital or even in a chamber setting. The personality of the instrument when playing with orchestra needs to be open, daring, challenging...
When playing with orchestra, my guitar technique needs to adapt to that personality too. It is my desire to present the guitar as it is in its very essence, with no amplification, exploring and expanding the dynamics and other expressive tools to the limits of the instrument--from the inviting pianissimo that only a guitar can produce to the dramatic fortissimo. I like to create a wide expressive space where to mold my musical interpretation.
On the other hand, the guitar in recital is a much more intimate instrument where one invites the audience to come closer to you as if it were a gathering around a magical, intimate and intense campfire. The guitar in recital allows you to explore infinite expressive freedom of a magic realism.
As a chamber music instrument, the guitar works beautifully with voice, flute, violin and string quartets. I am currently particularly motivated in expanding the repertoire for guitar and string quartets.
NP: Elmer Bernstein's Guitar Concerto has a special resonance here in Santa Barbara, where he lived for many years and was actively involved in the music scene. It's a beautiful piece. Is this a work you have been familiar with, and have a special feeling for?
PSV: I have always loved this concerto and had never had the opportunity to play it. My close relationship with Christopher Parkening, as a result of winning the inaugural Parkening International Guitar Competition in 2006, makes this concerto even more special to me. It is my personal homage to Elmer Bernstein honoring this beautiful concerto, to Christopher Parkening for his great legacy to the Spanish guitar and to Christopher Palmer, close friend of Bernstein and to whom this concerto is also dedicated.
Playing this concerto with the Santa Barbara Symphony is a beautiful celebration of the people of Santa Barbara, to Bernstein and to the great legacy that he created during his lifetime. I am honored to be part of this unique day and celebration.
NP: Where did guitar enter your life, and was it always classical guitar which sparked your passion?
PSV: I watched Andres Segovia on a black-and-white TV at the age of six and I was so touched by it that i began taking 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.
I have always been under the spell by my guitar, for whenever I practiced, it was my refuge, my time, my space, my intimate dialogue with myself. The Spanish guitar has always been my favorite instrument of all.
NP: And the Spanish connection with classical guitar runs so deep, through Segovia's legacy and popularizing efforts and the repertoire of Spanish composers for the instrument. Do you sense a heritage tapping into your essence and historical lineage as a Spaniard?
PSV: Yes, it is very exciting responsibility that I assume with the natural feeling of being from Spain and playing the guitar. The guitar from its origins in the 16th century is one of the few instruments fully linked to a country and its culture, Spain, and being from those roots it is a very personal, genuine and authentic connection with the history of the instrument, with its repertoire and its legacy looking into the 21st century.
Art is based on excellence and authenticity as an extension of my Spanish roots, my culture and emotions.
NP: You have also worked with music, live and on recordings, from Northern and Latin America, as on your delicious album "Americano" and "Histoire du Tango." Has living in America shifted your perspective in terms of where you can find musical inspiration, in terms of genres and geography--including bluegrass, for instance?
PSV: Yes, America--and in New York--is where I have lived the last 14 years of my life, and the experience has been a very important part of who I am today. On a bigger scale, the Americas as a continent offers such rich and varied cultural identities which are a great source of inspiration to me.
Although the guitar has strong roots from Spain, it presently belongs to Spain as much as to the Americas and even to the world. When the guitar arrived to the Americas through the colonial time in the 16th century, it rapidly became the instrument of the people to express the different musical identities of each region of the Americas and as a result, a completely different new repertoire was created.
The guitar is the most popular and versatile instrument in the world and even since its origins it has always had a foot on the folk tradition of the troubadours and another foot on the most sophisticated courts of Europe. This essential fact, that is linked to the very nature of the instrument, is what makes the guitar the most democratic and popular instrument in the world.
NP: As you view your musical story so far, has it taken you farther than you had imagined, and to unexpected places?
PSV: Since I was a kid, practicing my guitar and listening to the "Concierto de Aranjuez" among other classics of my dad's LP collection, I have always wanted to be on stage. The path I chose along with my instrument and the places where my instrument has brought me are gifts that I receive with gratitude.
I feel very fortunate of all the people with whom I have crossed paths in my life, all the unforgettable opportunities I have had to play music in different parts of the world, all the collaborations with orchestras and conductors. This has always been my dream and I am living it.