Assad Brothers Guitar Duo at SummerFest

Sérgio and Odair Assad

By Kenneth Herman

A colorful musical caravan to Brazil and Argentina

For a single afternoon—a gloomy, overcast Sunday (August 14)—La Jolla SummerFest ignored its cherished Mozart, Brahms, Chopin and the other European musical gods it regularly worships to pay homage to the exotic divinities of South America. And what better acolytes to guide this rite than the esteemed Brazilian classical guitar duo of Sérgio and Odair Assad?

The laid-back but musically adroit Assads offered selections by their fellow countrymen Heitor Villa-Lobos, Ernesto Nazareth, Antonio Carlos Jobim and by the Argentine avatars Astor Piazzolla and Alberto Ginastera, as well as a pair of original works by Sérgio Assad. But their program was no easy-listening medley of snappy tangos and hummable “Girl from Ipanema” melodies. While dance motivates much of South American music, the Assad’s program also held up the wistful, introspective, improvisational, and dramatic elements that are equally celebrated and manifested in this rich tradition so geographically close but culturally remote from the U.S.

Their several Piazzolla selections covered the emotional and stylistic waterfront, from the acidic chord progressions and skittish, tentative themes of “Bandonéon” arranged for two guitars to the virile tango pulsations of “Verano Porteño,” performed with the strings of the Old City String Quartet. With violinist Jennifer Koh providing sleek, expressive nostalgic melodic invention, the Assads evoked wintry solitude in “Invierno Porteño,” while these same musicians suggested a menacing specter in “Escualo” (or “shark” in Spanish).

In a pair of Jobim pieces for guitars alone, “Amparo” and “Stone Flower,” the Assad brothers’ distinctive temperament came to the fore: clipped, unfailingly articulate attacks, crystalline phrasing, subtle dynamic modulations, and the acute integration of their individual musical lines. By way of contrast, their approach to the guitar is the serene, Apollonian route, rather than the more familiar Dionysian fervor of the Romero family of guitarists, exemplars of the robust Spanish tradition. Perhaps as a result of this difference, the La Jolla audience took a while to warm up to the Assads, but, especially as the duo added other musicians to the ensemble, the SummerFest crowd acknowledged the depth of their artistry and showed their approval with enthusiasm.

Clarinetist Burt Hara excelled in his colorful, feisty solo in Ginastera’s “Malambo,” a brilliant movement from the 1941 ballet “Estancia,” composed for the North American dance impresario Lincoln Kirstein. And in Assad’s “Suite from De Volta As Raizes” (“Back to Our Roots”), Hara suggested the breezy freedom of a klezmer player.

Assad’s “Suite,” an expansive chamber work for nine strings, clarinet, flute, and two guitars, mingled Middle Eastern scales and harmonies with South American textures and dance rhythms in a compelling fashion. Because one of the Assad grandparents came to Brazil from Lebanon, Sérgio decided to portray this cross-cultural fetilization musically. We heard three movements of this “Suite” at the conclusion of Sunday’s concert. This 15-minute composition struck me as a compact concerto for two guitars, which, with a little broader orchestration and a dash of percussion, could offer some worthy competition to the ubiquitous Rodrigo guitar concertos that have cornered this market.

Béla Bartók’s set of six short “Romanian Folk Dances,” the one non-South American offering on the program, gave violinist David Chan the opportunity to flash his big, assertive sound in some earthy peasant dances, and then turn on a dime to spin out delicate themes at the top of his range, accompanied by unearthly guitar harmonics. Bartók’s perceptive adaptation of rustic music to the concert stage was certainly complementary to the remainder of a program equally tied to aboriginal impulses.