Short FeaturesTeachable Moments
World masters take time to share their gifts
By Carrie Sherman '76
"How can I describe why the Assads are so great?" muses Paul Bourgelais, who teaches guitar at Plymouth State College. "Well, in layman's terms, it's as if Jimi Hendrix came back as brothers and then practiced for 30 years." Bourgelais scurries off in search of the 10 students he's brought to attend both the Celebrity Series concert and the master class the following day.
Sergio and Odair Assad have a touring list that includes all of Europe's great cities, Australia, Israel, the Far East, and Latin America, and now, Durham. After 20 years of performing, this has been a breakthrough year for them. Recently they've collaborated with artists such as Dawn Upshaw and Yo-Yo Ma. Their recordings of Baroque music and of contemporary Brazilian composers have received much acclaim. They've even been on "CBS Sunday Morning" with Eugenia Zukerman: the feature was named "Themselves an Orchestra."
Watching them take their places on stage, dressed in black, with their gleaming guitars and no microphone, one wonders—Will I hear what is they say is so extraordinary? The short answer is yes.
On stage, the Assad brothers simply weave their spell. Their guitars seem to float in front of them like in a Brague painting while their hands move with great speed and strength. The music they create does not always sound like two guitars—sometimes it sounds like harpsichords or pianos, like bells or voices. These are the sounds of Paris in the 1920s, of an 18th-century Spanish court and of the cultural mix that is Brazil.
The next morning Sergio takes a short break from transcribing and composing music for their repertoire, to talk about music and teaching.
"We started to play guitars with our father when I was about 12 and my brother was about eight. My father is a mandolinist and plays folk music—choros. But he listened to us, and he knew he had to find us a good teacher," says Sergio. So their father moved the family from a small village in the state of Sao Paulo to Rio de Janeiro. There, Sergio and Odair studied with classical guitarist and lutenist Monina Tavora, a disciple and former pupil of Andres Segovia.
"She taught us not just about music, but about life. How to go about things," says Sergio. "When we teach we are very careful about what we say. Everyone wants a word of encouragement. I don't like to talk about technique. Although in the end, you have to find a balance between your body and limbs. But, this is not the main point, the main point is in the music you play. I've had people who taught me things I've never forgotten. Sometimes it takes 20 years, but the message is there."
Meanwhile, seven students are preparing to play for Odair and a small audience. James Krzanowski, an associate professor of mechanical engineering, begins to play "Um Amor de Valsa." Odair listens, singing and swaying along with Krzanowski's playing.
To another student, Odair says, "When you play too hard, you get a buzzy sound . . . don't do that."
As a quartet of guitar players tackles a complicated piece, Odair comments, "Whenever you play music you have to play your own part, but also, always, you must listen for what's important."
Lastly, Izaac Bustos, a prospective student who has recently moved to New Hampshire from Miami, Fla., plays "Tres Piezas Espanolas" by Rodrigo.
"Muy bien!" says Odair. "Can you play the second one? Everyone is enjoying it."
Bustos plays two and three.
"Technically, you're very good," says Odair. "Your hands are nice and relaxed. What you really need to think about is music."
While Bustos plays, Odair studies the score, singing along with him. "You get more Spanish in this cantata. Do this soft," he says, "and it will sound less metallicky, more like birds."
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