The venue specializes in hip club-type happenings that feel more like indie band sets than stodgy classical music concerts. Its eclectic programs of classical, world, and new music often include integrated audio and video innovations. But Villegas needed only his guitar – abetted by his considerable personal charm – to bring the flavors of the Spanish-speaking world to Brooklyn.
His “celebrating the Americas” program, which diverged to Spain itself, opened with a joropo by Venezuelan composer Pedro Elías Gutiérrez. “Alma Llanera” (“Soul of the Plains”) is a showpiece that gave Villegas a chance to show off his seemingly effortless technique. Then, slowing things down, he stretched out Villa-Lobos’s “Prelude No. 1” with luxurious rubatos that approached but never quite touched excess, demonstrating a beautiful rich tone and a profound understanding of space and silence.
After a sensitive performance of “Un sueño en la floresta” (“A dream in the forest”), a slow, dreamlike lullaby canopied with tremolo and composed by Paraguayan guitarist Agustín Barrios Mangoré, Villegas showed off his finger speed with Isaac Albéniz’s familiar “Asturias,” turning the original piano score’s sixteenth notes into sixteenth-note triplets. (Classic rock fans know this piece, even if not by name: The Doors adapted its main theme for their song “Spanish Caravan.”) The room was silent as a tomb during the quiet sections, Villegas’s mastery of space and dynamics again almost palpable.
He brought humor and drama as well as dazzling technique to French composer Roland Dyens’s “Tango en Skäi,” then closed with Francisco Tárrega’s “Gran Jota de Concierto,” a celebratory work from Villegas’s own home region of La Rioja in northern Spain. Another showpiece, this dance suite called for an array of entertaining techniques: tapping on the wood of the guitar, toneless percussion from the strings, and harmonics. Yet throughout its changes, the guitarist maintained an exquisite musicality.
For an encore, Villegas went for Tárrega’s old crowd-pleasing standby “Memories of the Alhambra,” a piece I must have heard dozens of times (though until now I never knew who wrote it or what it was called). His sensitive rendition nicely walked the line between the mechanical performances that infect YouTube and the schmaltzy versions I’ve heard too often.
The folks at National Sawdust have created just the right sort of venue for what has come to feel like a true chamber-music revival. For their part, artists like Villegas, whether assisted by video installations and electronics or performing in pure acoustic simplicity, are happy to fit right in, playing concise hourlong sets and communing closely with friendly audiences.
Pablo Sáinz Villegas’s new solo album, Americano, his debut on the Harmonia Mundi label, is out now.