Classical Guitar’s Dynamic Duo Diversifies

Josef Woodard is a frequent contributor to Calendar

Twenty years ago, a pair of twentysomething brothers named Assad traveled from Sao Paulo, Brazil, to Bratislava, Slovakia, unpacked their handmade instruments and won a competition. They were virtual unknowns on the world music scene before that, and the prize launched their careers. It also fueled the respected but rare musical format they represent: classical guitar duo.

Now, Odair Assad, born in 1956, and Sergio Assad, born in 1952, have made the name Assad one of the most respected in the guitar world generally, and the first name in guitar duo playing.

Somehow, it’s hard to believe that the Assads have been at it for so long, partly because of their relatively ageless countenances, but also the relative youthfulness of the format itself. Among established instrumental traditions in classical music, guitar is still a new frontier, and the guitar duo is newer still. When the brothers perform at UCLA’s Schoenberg Hall on Friday, it will be both a departure from the classical norm and another link in a long chain for this seasoned team.

Encouraged by their father, a mandolinist, the brothers took up guitar as children and started playing in the moody, indigenous Brazilian style known as choro, a descendant of the Portuguese fado sound. “We did this for a couple of years,” Sergio recalls, “and our father thought, ‘Oh, these boys are so good, I have to push them into becoming musicians.’ ” (Badi Assad, 10 years younger than Odair, has also pursued the family business; she’s a solo guitarist who mixes Brazilian, jazz and classical traditions.)


Seeking out a teacher for the boys, their father settled on Monina Tavora, who had studied with Andres Segovia. Recognizing the brothers’ innate musical bond and the professional possibilities of a duo, she encouraged them to team up.

“It was her idea for us to stick together and steer away from playing solo,” says Sergio. “This is what we did. When you’re a teenager, you do what people tell you"--he laughs--"we’ve been playing together for 35 years now.”

Without quarrel? “I think all the fights that we might have had we got out of the way when we were teens.”

Viewed from a broad perspective, the Assad phenomenon is a natural addendum to the integral role Brazil has played in popularizing classical guitar. Unquestionably, the guitar as a musical tradition found its richest soil in Spain, including the advocacy of Segovia in the 20th century. But Brazilian Heitor Villa-Lobos is arguably the most important 20th century composer for the instrument. The unique Brazilian guitarist-pianist-composer Egberto Gismonti is also building an impressive oeuvre.


Pondering the guitar’s legacy in Brazil, Sergio refers to the arrival of the guitar in the New World in the 16th century, brought by Spanish sailors. Latin American countries developed new musical languages for the instrument, especially in Brazil. Always, European--which is to say, classical--influences were buzzing in the periphery.

“There was a time, in the 19th century,” Sergio says, “when Rio de Janeiro was called ‘the city of the pianos.’ All the bourgeoisie--the high society--had to have a piano in their home. The instrument of the low class was the guitar. But it was from low-class society that important Brazilian music comes. With the crossing of European music and music played on the streets, that’s where you get the real Brazilian music. That’s why we have the power of the guitar as an instrument, along with the development of Brazilian music.”

From the beginning, the Assads had to carve out a niche for themselves. Sergio became an arranger-composer, recasting the work of composers ranging from Astor Piazzolla to Ralph Towner for himself and his brother. But the brothers have also commissioned music. That there isn’t a long history of compositions tailored to duo guitar has been “a positive thing for us,” said Sergio. “Somehow, we had to create our own repertoire. Somehow, at the end of the day, that’s identified with what we do. There are other guitar duos in the world, but they don’t play the music we play.”

At this point, the duo not only has a music-through-the-ages repertory of transcriptions but also a sizable library of pieces written for them. Contributors include legendary folk-meets-jazz Brazilian musician Hermeto Pascual, noted Russian guitarist-composer Nikita Koshkin and proto-minimalist American Terry Riley.


Their program Friday, however, leans on Sergio’s arrangements of outside material, including a reworking of Gismonti piano music, work of Piazzolla and Federico Moreno Torroba, and a transcription of Rameau. Also on the program are existing duo pieces from Spanish composer Isaac Albeniz and active Cuban composer Leo Brouwer, whose “Tres Danzas Concertantes” was originally a guitar and string orchestra piece that he refitted for a duo, with the Assads in mind.

The Assads have played an important role, along with musicians like violinist Gidon Kremer, in the recent renaissance of Piazzolla and his “nuevo tango.” Long favored by musical cognoscenti, Piazzolla’s work has become ever more popular in conventional classical circles since his death in 1992. Piazzolla met, and was wowed by, the Assads back in the ‘80s, and was inspired to write “Tango Suite” for them.

“I was trying to find alternative composers back in the ‘70s,” Sergio recalls of the time, “and Piazzolla was one of them, because he had everything that you requested in a piece of music--good harmony, a great sense for melody, everything was happening there. I arranged some of his stuff, and when we met him later, in ’83, I played some of my arrangements for him and he got so excited, he said, ‘Oh, boys, I’m going to write for you.’ And he did.”

As it turned out, success strained patience after a while. “When Piazzolla wrote the ‘Tango Suite’ for us, the piece was such a hit that we had to play it for a number of years. But after four or five years, we were really tired of it, and we dropped the piece. There’s a limit for how much you can play the same piece over and over again. Some people don’t care. They just play the same repertoire all their lives, but we have to keep trying out different things.”


As busy as their lives as a guitar duo keeps them, touring for eight months out of a given year, the Assad brothers make time for special collaborative projects.

One of their current works-in-progress is a Piazzolla recording with an all-star cast of guests, including Kremer, Yo-Yo Ma, Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg and Fernando Suarez Paz, the violinist who played in the composer’s band. “It was a unique experience to play with this man, because you hear the same violin that you heard on the recordings. It was like making Piazzolla alive again.”

Another of their projects is a just-released disc that pays homage to Gypsy music, in collaboration with violinist Salerno-Sonnenberg. The temporary threesome breezed through Los Angeles in February, showcasing the work at Largo.

“From the beginning,” Sergio explains, “we made a decision to track Gypsy roots and to write for us as a trio. I was thinking of her particular skills in playing the violin.”


However lauded their reputation is by now, Sergio is humble about the duo’s work-in-trade. He sees their mission as part of a larger plan. “I think we do our work, and we are among people who are trying to keep the guitar alive. You know, the guitar as an instrument is [doing] OK. But the classical guitar goes up and down. We’re trying to keep it alive.”


SERGIO AND ODAIR ASSAD, UCLA’s Schoenberg Hall. Date: Friday, 8 p.m. Price: $30. Phone: (310) 825-2101.