The Press Democrat: ‘Play’ is the message and style of Santa Rosa Symphony world premiere

Published on November 2, 2023 by Diane Peterson       |      Share this post!

Squeaky-pig toys, drums and whistles are all part of a female Brazilian composer’s unique concerto at Green Music Center this weekend.

Clarice Assad, an accomplished singer, composer and pianist based in Chicago, grew up in a musical family in Brazil, where she sang almost as soon as she could talk and composed almost as soon as she could sing.

Music came naturally to the daughter of renowned classical guitarist Sergio Assad, who with his brother Odair performs all over the world as the Assad Brothers guitar duo. When Clarice was still a child, her career path was set, thanks to her father’s tutelage.

“There were so many powerful moments of connection with and through music,” Clarice said of her childhood. “It was never imposed on me. It was like a conversation, but a conversation through music. … He always encouraged me to create. So I started believing in it, and by the time I was 6 and he left for Europe to work, I believed it.”

Now 45, the multifaceted musician has written 70 works, released seven solo albums and performed on 34 more, including 2021’s “Archetypes,” a collection of a dozen tracks she composed and performed in collaboration with her father and avant-garde classical ensemble Third Coast Percussion.

The album was so well-received — it nabbed three Grammy nominations — that the composer decided to write another work just for the Chicago-based percussion ensemble (her father, who is 70, decided to sit this one out). She will perform the world premiere of that new concerto this weekend with the help of guest artists Third Coast Percussion as part of the Santa Rosa Symphony’s second concert of the season under Music Director Francesco Lecce-Chong.

The program also includes Two Canzoni for Brass by Giovanni Gabrieli and Mahler’s “Titan” Symphony No. 1, which incorporates haunting melodies Mahler composed for previous works. Those works will bookend Assad’s 20-minute “Play” for Orchestra, a percussion concerto written in three whimsical movements.

“I’m so excited for this work,” said Lecce-Chong, who has worked with Third Coast Percussion before. “Clarice has such a wonderful sense of adventure and fun in her music. There’s always some surprise and delightful thing to find.”

A semi-theatrical story in music that features narration and vocals, “Play” for Orchestra has a unique sound that comes from a massive assortment of toy percussion instruments including drums, whistles and squeaky-pig toys the ensemble keeps in its warehouse studio.

After playing around with those instruments, Assad thought it would be fun to write a work that explores all the different facets of the word “play.”

“Playing games, playing music, playing with somebody’s heart. The theater play. It has so many meanings,” she said. “We are definitely playing and taking it to the next level.”

Assad lives with her partner and their two young daughters in Chicago, where her father and brother also live. The family often goes to Brazil to work and visit family, which includes her aunt Badi Assad, a professional singer, composer and guitarist.

She explained more about “Play” and her family’s musical traditions, speaking with The Press Democrat from her home in Chicago ahead of her concerts here this weekend.

Question: You sing jazz and popular music and compose for classical orchestras and ensembles. How do you manage to straddle so many different musical worlds?

Answer: You cannot really keep them separate. I can’t do that. I have so many interests that go beyond music … interests in reading, storytelling and theater. I just wrote an opera. So what happens is that, because I am open to a diversity of styles, I can draw from many different places without even thinking of it. I have all the Brazilian music at my disposal, as well as the rock and pop from the U.S. that was prominent from my childhood, as well as the classical guitar.

Q: How did music — both classical and popular — become a tradition in your family?

A: My father’s and uncle’s story is so insane. They grew up in a very remote part of Sao Paulo, and their father was obsessed with music for some reason we don’t understand. He was obsessed with choro music, which is like ragtime in the U.S. It came from the mixing of all the cultures. He would go out and play music with his friends and leave the family behind. Then when my father picked up the guitar, his father started staying at home to play with my father. And then my uncle got jealous, and he picked up the guitar, too.

My grandfather decided to sell everything he had, which was basically a car, and bring them to Rio to take lessons from a woman (Monina Tavora), who gave lessons for free and had been taught by (classical guitarist Andrés) Segovia. It was just classical music. My father is more of a music lover and a composer, while my uncle is more of a virtuosic player.

Then my father started arranging some (Astor) Piazzolla music. And they played some in France at a tiny concert, and somehow the word got out and Piazzolla showed up. He was floored by their arrangement and the playing, so he wrote for them the “Tango Suite” (for two guitars). And that’s when my father said, “Let’s not just play Bach. Let’s play everybody that we love.”

Q: How did some of your family end up in Chicago?

A: After my father’s second wife passed away in Europe, he met my stepmother, Angela, who is American-Brazilian and an astrophysicist in Chicago. After I graduated from high school, I wanted to go live with my father, so I came here to Chicago with a blank slate.

Q: As a Brazilian, you grew up hearing a lot of complicated percussion rhythms. How did you first start to work with Third Coast Percussion?

A: When I went to college, I said, “How am I going to write for percussion? What am I supposed to do?” It’s hard. But I didn’t realize how innate it was. I met Third Coast Percussion at a contemporary music festival in Chicago. I went to a concert of theirs, and it was so electrifying and exciting to hear and to watch. … I called them cold and said, “I really want to collaborate with you.”

At first they said, “Ah, no.” But I had an idea to create music about the 12 main storytelling archetypes — such as the lover and the artist — and so we got together. The second time we met we were friends, so we really engaged with this project.

Q: What was your process in writing this concerto for them?

A: I’ve been writing this slowly, because you don’t want to write just another percussion concerto. It was a slow process because I wanted to infiltrate and become a performer as well, but I did not want to add piano, which is another percussion instrument.

They have a warehouse studio full of instruments, and they got everything out of the shelves. We said, “Let’s see what we can do with everything we have,” even the weirdest, most ridiculous thing … rubber chickens and rubber pigs. We were cracking up with all the sounds. It took me two years to figure out what to do. So I had the idea of doing something with a factory of toys, and it became “Play.”

Q: Can you explain how the piece is organized and what role you have as one of the performers?

A: I decided to create the first movement to incorporate all the tchotchkes that we had and to make it into a story. I am narrating as they are playing. They interact with me, too, even speaking. It’s so fun.

The second movement is a song — it’s about playing with your heart — so I’m singing lyrics I wrote, and they are playing behind me. So the focus is on me.

In the third movement, we put the focus on their virtuosity. And I’m doing all kinds of things with the voice. … I can’t help it; it will be improvised. I incorporate a lot of technology so I am using a machine that can create harmonies and make my voice sound like octaves below. It’s called a vocoder, and I can get all kinds of effects.

Q: What were the challenges of writing the orchestra part for the concerto?

A: I love orchestrating. I think that’s why I went to (music) school. The first classical piece I heard was Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Scheherazade,” which is such a beautiful piece, and it’s a story. And then I heard Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition.” It’s like a sandbox for me, orchestration. But this is a concerto. You have to be mindful and careful about balancing the acts. Because it’s a storytelling thing. The orchestra is doing nothing at the moment when we are having an exchange, and then they come back in.

Q: What is new with your father and uncle, the Assad Brothers?

A: The brothers are going on their farewell tour in 2024 … to all the Americas, Europe and maybe Asia. They have been playing together for almost 60 years. They are going to draw from the best of the Assads through the decades.

Q: Who were the people who were most helpful to you in your musical journey and how are you giving back to the next generation?

A: I had (violinist) Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg (as a mentor). She was really amazing in connecting me to people like conductor Marin Alsop. Marin’s thing now is really working toward elevating the number of women in music, so she has the Taki Fellowship (a two-year award that includes coaching and mentoring with Alsop and others), and she is the music director of the Ravinia Festival here in Chicago. She is such an icon and a model.

I’m involved with educational programs, working with young kids, and I see a lot more young faces and people in the performing halls now, which I am pretty happy about. They are engaged and excited and writing music. I don’t have a fellowship yet, but I want to be able to contribute a lot to this field.