By Judy Cantor-Navas
Renowned Spanish guitarist Pablo Sáinz Villegas has performed with Yo Yo Ma, John Williams, the New York Philharmonic, and orchestras around the world. In La Rioja, the famed Spanish wine region where he was born and raised, the guitar maestro returns to host the La Rioja Festival, a yearly gathering he founded in 2022 to celebrate classical music and his homeland’s cultural, culinary, and scenic abundance.
In an interview for Musical Getaways, Judy Cantor-Navas talked to Pablo about the sound and soul of Spanish guitar, La Rioja Festival, and how music’s impact on individuals can change the world.
You are a world-traveling performer and you’ve lived in New York, but your work remains closely tied to the culture of Spain; La Rioja Festival is one manifestation of your love for the place that you come from. Do you feel that your Spanish identity is embedded in your playing, and does your music have a Spanish “accent” although you can be playing music by composers who are not Spanish?
I think like all human beings, I’m so much linked to my culture and my country. My heritage defines my true voice, and I can share with my audience my way of looking at things through the eyes of that cultural heritage. I think whether I’m playing Spanish music or South American music or classical music, there is always going to be a Spanish element to my music. It is going to be subtle, but that subtlety is what art is based upon, it’s what defines a personal interpretation. I think my Spanish signature is always a part of my music.
Your 2020 album is called “Soul of Spanish Guitar,” which encompasses different styles and music from different regions of Spain. Do you think that the guitar could be the best way there is to express the soul of Spain?
The guitar is one of the few instruments very much linked to a country and a culture. The violin and piano, for example, could be from Italy, Germany, France, or anywhere in central Europe. But if you think of a country linked to the guitar, it is Spain. It is the instrument that represents the voice of Spain and its multiculturalism in a great way.
Being such a local instrument, the guitar is also universal. When the guitar arrives to the Americas in the 16th century, it very quickly becomes the instrument that transmits the identity of countries like Argentina, through the tango, Brazil with samba, or Mexico with mariachi music. And later the centerpiece for rock and pop music. So the guitar is at the same time so linked to Spain and so universal.
The guitar is an instrument of the people. To me, music belongs to people, and to me as a musician, it’s a beautiful instrument for bringing people together and democratizing music. Music is for everyone.
My album “Soul of Spanish Guitar” album pays tribute to the instrument and to myself: the only true story I can share with the world is based on music I make with the guitar.
What for you is the definition of “Spanish Guitar, musically speaking?
In Spain, we have two expressions of the guitar: one is Flamenco, and one is Spanish guitar. The Spanish guitar is part of the classical music tradition, based on music that composers write on paper. We practice the score, we play the score, and we bring it to life. Flamenco is based on the improvisation of very elaborate rhythmic patterns that traditionally were never written down.
Flamenco is very dramatic, very alive, and it’s improvised. They are very similar guitars and very similar strings, but the main difference is that they use different forms of expression.
To make a comparison, you can imagine the great flamenco singer Camarón de la Isla singing with this rusty, dramatic voice, almost like crying. Then you can listen to Pavarotti using the voice in a totally different way in a totally different tone; it’s so silky and beautiful and it’s crystal clear. So that’s like the difference between the way we play Spanish classical guitar and the way flamenco players play flamenco guitar. Much of the repertoire written for Spanish guitar has that flair of flamenco music inspired by flamenco guitar. The flamenco guitar and the Spanish guitar are like cousins.
Why did you want to create a music festival in your native La Rioja?
I’ve always been so proud of being from rioja; I’ve always been very connected to my home region. It has wine and fantastic unique gastronomy. The pilgrimage route of the Camino de Santiago. Luch natural and historic heritage sites. There was a lack of classical music though, and I thought, I’m a classical musician and I have the responsibility to do something for the region that I love so much, using the music as an invitation for people to get to know La Rioja.
You are known for your social commitment and humanistic endeavors. How can music create understanding among people?
Music is the language of emotions. Music unifies the human condition it’s a language that everyone can relate to, no matter what your faith, your cultural background, or your language is.
Music unifies all of us and the emotional aspect of Life. It creates an environment for people to understand each other. To meet and look into each other’s eyes. It creates a space for diplomacy and a human environment to start talking about anything. I have an opportunity to put a message inside every note to put a purpose in it. As a musician what I can contribute to this world is through my music.
Music can definitely change the world, and definitely change the world on different scales. The way a kid sees the world differently after listening to music: that’s changing the world.
*See Pablo Sáinz Villegas perform and enjoy a unique line up of concerts at experiences at La Rioja Festival during Musical Getaways small group trip to La Rioja in May 2023.