Virtuosos such as Andrés Segovia and Celedonio Romero dominated the world of Spanish guitar for decades. But a new generation of talents has arisen to stake their claims, and few are higher on that list than guitarist Pablo Sáinz Villegas.
“As a Spainard, that’s a beautiful responsibility that I assume, having the guitar so much linked to my culture and my country, so ingrained in the traditions and in the essence of what Spain is,” said Sáinz Villegas, 41, who has appeared with such notable ensembles as the Boston Symphony, Israel Philharmonic, National Orchestra of Spain and New York Philharmonic. “It is a privilege and an opportunity to keep to not only keep that beautiful tradition alive that comes from centuries ago but also to expand it into new repertory and expressive ways to present the guitar.”
Sáinz Villegas is having something of a Chicago moment. He made his local debut with the Grant Park Music Festival in 2017, and he will appear for the first time with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra during concerts on May 23-26 with guest conductor Giancarlo Guerrero. “I love Chicago,” he said. “It has already offered me such beautiful memories, and I look forward very much to this debut with the Chicago Symphony. It’s one of the dreams I had when I was a student — to play with the Chicago Symphony one day — and here we go.”
Because the classical guitar typically does not project as forcefully as the violin, piano or cello, especially in a large concert hall, soloists often amplify the instrument so that it can be heard in proper balance with the orchestra. But Sáinz Villegas will perform with the CSO without amplification, because he has a developed an approach to the instrument that he said allows him to produce the necessary volume, from the softest pianissimos to the mightiest fortissimos.
“This is part of my statement as an artist,” he said. “This allows me to make music as it was conceived. We are in this society tired of listening to music through wires and electronics. So what I present, and I offer in the end is the vulnerability of a beautiful instrument that has a wide range of expressiveness in its nature.”
With the CSO, he will be performing what is by far the best-known work for guitar and orchestra, Joaquín Rodrigo’s Concierto de Aranjuez, composed in 1939 between the conclusion of the Spanish Civil War and the start of World War II. It was inspired by the gardens of the Royal Palace of Aranjuez, a town about 30 miles south of Madrid. “It is a wonderful piece, and I love it,” he said. “Every time I play it, it is an inspiration with a new symphony and a new maestro. It is a big part of who I am as a guitarist.”
That said, he sees the concerto as a kind of entry point to the guitar repertoire, and if he is asked back to an orchestra, he uses the second visit as an opportunity to explore other compelling but less recognized works for the instrument. In 2012, for example, he premiered Tomás Marco’s Concierto de Córdoba at the 32nd Guitar Festival of Córdoba. “It is very exciting to present and to show and to invite people to discover new repertoire for the guitar and the orchestra,” he said.
Born in La Rioja in northern Spain, the guitarist pursued the instrument at the local conservatory and continued at the Royal Superior Conservatory of Music in Madrid with José Luis Rodrigo. From 1997 to 2001, he studied with at Germany’s Hochschule für Musik Franz Liszt Weimar, finally earning a postgraduate diploma in 2004 with David Starobin at the Manhattan School of Music in New York. Sáinz Villegas has won honors in more than a dozen international competitions, including first prize at the 2003 International Guitar Competition Francisco Tárrega.
In 2018, he signed with Sony Classical, and his first recording for that label was a duet album with Plácido Domingo titled Volver (Return). The celebrated operatic singer first invited Sáinz Villegas to participate in a 2016 concert marking his 75th birthday. The festive event occurred before a sold-out crowd of 85,000 at the Santiago Bernabéu stadium in Madrid. The next day Domingo called the guitarist and asked him to join him for an album of traditional songs, many of which the singer recalled from his childhood. “It’s been a wonderful experience, spending time with him and recording with him,” Sáinz Villegas said. “He is a great inspiration. There is something really powerful and vulnerable in his voice that transcends the music itself, and that’s the why I think he has become such a widespread and popular [figure] in the world.”
Although various stringed antecedents of the guitar can be traced back several thousand years, the instrument as we know it evolved in Spain in the Middle Ages, descending from the lute and oud. The six-string Spanish vihuela, a guitar-like instrument of the 15th and 16th centuries, strongly influenced the development of the baroque guitar and its successors. “The guitar is one of the few instruments that is fully linked to a culture and a country, which is Spain,” he said.
At the same time that composers were writing court music for the instrument, it also was used in folk music, drawing influences from multiple sources, including flamenco and Jewish traditions. The guitar was in turn exported to the New World, where it played an integral role in the rise of Spanish-influenced styles such as tango, bossa nova and mariachi. In succeeding eras, the instrument has become integral to jazz, blues, rock and pop music, and it has gained universal popularity.
“That’s the value of the guitar,” Sáinz Villegas said. “It’s the instrument of the people, and nowadays even though its image is still linked to Spain, the instrument belongs to the world. In the end, we are all unified by the soul of the six strings.”
VIDEO: Pablo Sáinz Villegas performs Rodrigo’s Concierto de Aranjuez, with Carlos Kalmar and the Radio and Television Orchestra of Spain.