By Judy Cantor-Navas
Pablo Villegas performs Thursday (June 2) at Brooklyn venue National Sawdust. After that, he’ll be part of a huge tribute to Placido Domingo at Madrid’s 80,000-capacity soccer stadium, presented by Champion League winners Real Madrid’s foundation. Then Villegas will be playing for children at the Vivanco Museum of Wine Culture in Spain’s La Rioja region, where he is from, before spending the summer on a symphony tour in Japan. Villegas will return to the U.S. in the fall for gigs at Princeton University and Philadelphia’s Kimmel Center.
You may not be familiar with Villegas, but, as witnessed by his schedule, it’s safe to call him a global ambassador of the Spanish guitar. A frequent classical orchestra soloist, the New York-based musician describes himself as “carrying his guitar on his shoulder and a suitcase in his hand;” sort of a rambling man in a tuxedo.
The guitarist delved into diverse genres of popular music from Latin America and the United States for his most recent album, Americano. The 2015 release debuted at No. 11 on Billboard’s Classical Crossover Chart.
We caught up with Villegas at a hotel in Panama City to talk about the guitar’s journey through the Americas, and his own quest “to present the guitar almost like a new instrument, starting with the sound.”
Despite the important history and beauty of classical guitar music, on a massive level it’s become a kind of background sound associated with “chillout” mixes. How have you proposed to take it – or take it back - to another level?
The guitar is an instrument that’s tied to a specific culture, Spanish culture. At the same time, it has became one of the most international, popular and versatile instruments in existence. It has that duality. Spanish guitar - classical guitar - and all of its repertoire is one of the most difficult and sophisticated, musically speaking.
My intention is to present the guitar almost like a new instrument, starting with the sound. The guitar is an instrument that has not been considered a main player in an orchestra setting. I’m presenting it as a symphony instrument to play with an orchestra, without amplifying it. [I want to] project a big sound.
When I play a concert, people always say, ‘I never heard the guitar sound the way that you play it.’ And that is exactly what I am looking for. We’re talking about an emotional connection through the music using the guitar. For me, the guitar is the most wonderful and expressive instrument.
In addition to your classical concerts in which you play music by the great Spanish composer Joaquín Rodrigo and others, you’ve been exploring some more international and popular repertoire with songs you showcase on your album Americano. How did you come up with the concept?
It started when I met John Williams in Los Angeles. He invited me to his house because he had composed his first piece for solo guitar, and I was so fortunate that he asked me to perform the world premiere of the work (in 2012). Then I asked him if I could record it. From there, the seed of Americano was born. The guitar is tied to Spanish culture, [but] it is an instrument that belongs to the Americas as much as it does to Spain. Because once the guitar got to the Americas in the 16th and 17th centuries, it became the one through which all of the different regional identities in each country could be felt. There are dozens and dozens of rhythms that have their own identity. It was so exciting for me to explore what you can call the “American guitar.”
The tracks range from a Venezuelan joropo to an Argentine tango, to “Granada” by Mexican songwriter Agustín Lara and “Maria” from West Side Story. How did you choose?
I wanted to establish a context from which I could take a trip from the south to north, until I arrived in the United States, exploring the music of composers from different countries...I also wanted to transmit the vision of music as something that unites people. It’s a universal language, from American bluegrass to Brazilian bossa nova.
It was hard to decide what to include. I ended up leaving a lot of pieces out.
You’ve become well-established on the classical circuit and beyond [at age 38], but how did you begin your career?
I went onstage for the first time when I was seven years old. It was in a theater in my home town, Logroño, in front of an audience of family and friends. From that day on I wanted to play. My mother and I had the idea of performing at senior citizen residences on the weekends
The people in the audience are the ones who make sense of performing – and it’s the same whoever you are performing for. For me, it can be children I’ve played for through my work with my foundation (Música Sin Fronteras), or playing at Carnegie Hall. It’s the same thing.
The magic occurs with the music of the composer, the performer and the audience. That is the musical trinity. When it connects it’s something magical. It’s something we’ve all experienced at some point when we listen to music.
Tell me about your relationship with Vivanco, the celebrated winery in the La Rioja, the famous Spanish wine region where you grew up...
Vivanco has very close ties to art and culture. They have a foundation with a wine museum that UNESCO considers to be the most important one in the world dedicated to wine culture. We began this collaboration of support and sponsorship. It’s a natural relationship for me. Being from La Rioja, it’s easy for me to promote the culture of the region and its ties to wine and history. And there are a lot of receptions after my concerts...