SFCM's Pre-College Guitar Orchestra, Community Guitar Ensemble and leading guitarist Peppino D'Agostino are part of the celebrations.
By Alex Heigl
It's rare that an entire instrumental community can agree on one thing—let alone one artist. But guitarists across the world are united in their praise of one of their own, Sérgio Assad, whose 70th birthday is being celebrated at SFCM with a concert on Nov. 19. (Assad will also be celebrating his Latin Grammy win this week: His work "Anido's Portrait: I. Chacarera," from his album Legado, won Best Classical Contemporary Composition at the awards Thursday.)
"As guitarist/composers go, Sergio is widely regarded as being near the top," SFCM Guitar Department Chair David Tanenbaum said. "We love him and his teaching, and we're excited to have him here and celebrate him." In addition to being part of SFCM’s guitar faculty, Assad is an Opus 3 Artist, the management company acquired by SFCM in 2020, and his nearly two-week residency at the Conservatory in November included an open-to-the-public masterclass.
Tanenbaum explained that Assad's duo with his brother Odair garnered him international acclaim for years before he'd ever written his first and most famous piece, Aquarelle, in 1986. (Student Samuel Liang will be playing the piece at the concert.) He added that part of the genius of Assad's composing is imparting the personality of the player into the piece commissioned by or for them: "You really come away with an idea of who this person is through the music."
The final piece of the evening, Wednesdays at Sugar is a personal one for the SFCM guitar department: When Assad was teaching regularly at the Conservatory, a rotating cast of guitarists would convene at the Hayes Valley bar Sugar, near the school, for happy hour.
"It's 11 different instruments, many different sounds," Tanenbaum said. "And it follows the course of those evenings, where we'd all meet and everyone would say hello and split up for discussions, and then we'd all have to settle on a place for dinner afterward."
Guitar faculty member Marc Teicholz recalled being in disbelief when Assad arrived at SFCM to teach: "It was like getting Yo-Yo Ma… I think he's the best living guitar composer there is." He continued, "After a few years, when I got over being incredibly self-conscious around someone I revered, I finally calmed down, and we became friends, although I never quite entirely forget that he is who he is."
Imbricatta, the piece Teicholz is playing at the concert, is dedicated to another SFCM guitar instructor, Meng Su, and Teicholz described it as one of Assad's more complex pieces: "The more you work at it, the more it gives; there's so many interesting things happening with it."
Assad, he continued, "knows how to make the guitar sound good. And so no matter how difficult or complicated the piece is—and some of them are extremely difficult—it's still always very natural to play and it flatters the instrument."
Student Juri Yun, who studies with Tanenbaum, echoed that sentiment: "You could say Sergio writes some of the most difficult music you can play, but it fits the way the instrument is meant to be played." Like Tanenbaum, he compared Assad's use of counterpoint to Bach, concluding simply, "He can orchestrate the guitar in a way that I don't think anyone else can. He's a wizard."