Pablo Sáinz-Villegas seeks to rekindle ‘a beautiful communion’ with the CSO

Guitar soloist Pablo Sáinz-Villegas acknowledges applause after performing Rodrigo's Concierto de Aranjuez with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, under conductor Giancarlo Guerrero in May 2019.

©Todd Rosenberg Photography

The classical guitar is a deeply intimate instrument, and classical guitarist Pablo Sáinz-Villegas sees it as a powerful one, too. ‘’

Sáinz-Villegas is no shrinking violet when it comes to performances of the Spanish classical music repertoire. He made that much clear in his 2019 Chicago Symphony Orchestra debut, with a highly lauded performance of Rodrigo’s Concierto de Aranjuez.

That debut was hailed by Chicago Tribune music critic Howard Reich, who said: “Villegas immediately dusted away the clichés, thanks to the sheen of his tone and the nobility of his rhythms.”

Sáinz-Villegas plans to bring that same approach to his upcoming Chicago Symphony Orchestra concerts March 30 through April 4 of Vivaldi‘s Guitar Concerto in D Major, RV 93, and Boccherini’s Fandango, under guest conductor Bernard Labadie. The program, which will be repeated March 31 at Wheaton College, will include Mozart’s Symphony No. 40 and Boccherini’s Symphony No. 26 in C Minor.

He vividly remembers stepping onto Orchestra Hall stage in 2019 and looking out at the 2,500 seats and thinking it was a singular moment in his evolving career. “It was four concerts to full houses every night, and it was terrific,” Sáinz-Villegas said. “I felt there was a beautiful communion with the orchestra.”

Hailed as the ambassador of the Spanish classical guitar, Sáinz-Villegas has a visceral connection with the music of Spain, having been born in La Rioja, a region in northern Spain esteemed for its wines.

He got his start on the guitar early. At age 6, he was taking classical guitar lessons. A year later, he gave his first public performance. At 15, he won the Segovia Award, which laid the foundation to what is now a standout career and the reputation of Sáinz-Villegas as the successor to Andrés Segovia.

For his upcoming concerts, Sáinz-Villegas will shift gears to well-known works that are more intimate than Rodrigo’s concerto, but no less colorful.

Simplicity and emotion will be the musical charm, with his technique, the sonic engine. “One of my artistic statements is to present the guitar just as it is, without amplification, in big halls,” said Sáinz-Villegas.

Although Orchestra Hall is considered an intimate performance space for its size, it has a deeply vertical design with multiple levels.

Sáinz-Villegas said that for the Vivaldi and Boccherini, he will employ his standard approach of mining the many colors of each work by using a technique that is as conceptual as it is physical.

It begins with the fingers but does not stop there. He likens his approach to how tennis players use their arm technique. Instead of just playing from the wrist, you employ the entire arm.

“When you play tennis you play with whole arm, starting with shoulder, then elbow and wrist … so you create a whole movement with the whole arm. This develops more power,” he said. “Can you imagine Rafael Nadal playing with just his wrist?

“It’s all about exploring and maximizing the expressive technical tools a guitarist must use to perform 18th-century music in a big hall,” he said.

This will prove elemental to his performance of Vivaldi’s Guitar Concerto, written in the 1730s. For Sáinz-Villegas, a different mindset comes into play for the concerto.

“Vivaldi was composing for a mandolin orchestra much of the time, and the conception of music at the time was very different,” he said. “Not even Mozart existed yet.” 

The music’s appeal is in its clarity and simplicity.

“We listen with perspective of ears of the 20th century. We know Wagner, we know Shostakovich and that different approach … but when I listen to Vivaldi, I hear the purity and lightness. I think people connect with that in a very natural way.”

With the Boccherini, Sáinz-Villegas seeks to tap an Italian composer’s view of Spanish music, and one with flamenco influences. “The south of Italy was part of Spain, and there was a lot of cultural exchange between the two countries,” he said.

That cross-cultural pollination makes the work universal, he said.

“Boccherini’s introduction of the guitar in that piece works very well as a fandango, which is a traditional dance from Spain in 3/4 time, and meant to be danced,” he said. “I think the piece is a great celebration of the guitar and what the guitar means to a country like Spain.”