From the July/August 2022 issue of Acoustic Guitar | By Mark Small
Brazilian classical guitarist João Luiz came up in a musical culture where many musicians crisscross genres happily. Consequently, Luiz’s musical influences range from European classical to música popular brasileira (MPB) to jazz and more. Now 42, he is best known for his work with the Latin Grammy–nominated Brasil Guitar Duo, formed with Douglas Lora when both were teenagers. The duo’s résumé includes international recitals, concerto work with orchestras, and appearances with many musical bright lights, including cellist Yo-Yo Ma. Renowned composers have written works for them, as well as solo music for Luiz.
An ensemble music specialist, Luiz also performs with other groups, including the Quaternaglia Guitar Quartet and Trio Virado (featuring flutist Amy Porter and violist Jaime Amador) where the focus is on Brazilian and Latin American chamber music. A recent pairing with Brazilian mandolin virtuoso Danilo Brito on the album Esquina de São Paulo revels in Luiz’s Brazilian roots. The recording spotlights the melodies and rhythms of choro and samba (primary components of MPB) in pieces by Pixinguinha, Eduardo Souto, and Jacob do Bandolim, plus three Brito originals.
Growing up in São Paulo, Brazil, Luiz was the only member of his immediate family to play an instrument. He credits his parents for their significant impact on his development. “They listened to the best music,” Luiz remembers, “and always had musicians playing at parties at our home. My father is a fan of jazz and American folk music and my mother likes traditional Brazilian samba and choro. I really benefitted from their love for great music.” His parents fully supported his musical proclivities, even allowing him to forgo working to devote his youthful years to guitar practice.
Before gravitating to the guitar, Luiz had played trumpet in his school band when he was eight years old, learning solfège and music theory. A cousin taught him to play the cavaquinho, a small, four-stringed instrument similar to the ukulele that has an important role in samba and choro music. “After trumpet and cavaquinho, I started teaching myself the guitar,” he says. “I had a good ear for guitar music from listening to jazz, samba, and choro. In my early steps with guitar, I applied what I learned from playing melodies with a pick on cavaquinho and the harmonic sense I had developed.”
At 13, Luiz began formal classical guitar studies with Henrique Pinto at a São Paulo conservatory and continued with the revered pedagogue through college. “I remember my first lessons with him,” he says. “I already knew how to read music from playing trumpet, but didn’t know much about guitar playing. Henrique taught me how to position the hands, and for the first six months he filed my nails to show me how to get the best sound. He taught me everything about the foundation and more—he formed me.”
After graduating from college, Luiz and Lora worked at building momentum for their duo through recordings and concert appearances. Winning the Concert Artists Guild Competition in 2006 boosted their profile and forged connections in New York. They also embarked on graduate studies, with Lora earning his master’s degree at the University of Miami and Luiz choosing Mannes School of Music in New York and studies with Michael Newman. Luiz later received an Augustine Foundation award to work with David Leisner at the Manhattan School of Music, where he earned his doctoral degree.
Opportunities multiplied for the virtuosic Brasil Guitar Duo with bookings throughout America, including appearances at Colorado’s Aspen Festival, Grand Teton Music Festival in Wyoming, and the Chautauqua Institution in Western New York, in addition to appearances across South America, Europe, and Asia. Among the composers writing for the duo is fellow Brazilian Paulo Bellinati, who penned Concerto for Two Guitars and Orchestra for them, which they premiered with the São Paulo Symphony Orchestra in 2012. They have played and recorded other double concertos, but a notable performance of Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco’s Concerto for Two Guitars with the Houston Symphony, conducted by Carlos Miguel Prieto (the son of renowned Mexican cellist Carlos Prieto) led to a major opportunity.
For the celebration of Cuban guitarist-composer Leo Brouwer’s 75th birthday, Yo-Yo Ma and Carlos Prieto commissioned from Brouwer a 23-minute work titled El Arco y La Lira for two cellos and two guitars. Prieto invited Ma to play the premiere in Havana, Cuba, in October of 2014. After glowing reports from his conductor son, Prieto suggested that Ma consider Luiz and Lora for the guitar parts. Coincidentally, Brouwer had also recommended the Brasil Duo to Ma.
A YouTube video of the premiere shows a performance glowing with technical brilliance and warm musical camaraderie among the musicians. “Yo-Yo Ma is such a gentleman,” Luiz says. “He wanted to do a lot of rehearsal because he didn’t know Brouwer’s music. We met four times prior to going to Cuba, which was a luxury. Yo-Yo asked his assistant to record the rehearsals and he listened to them and asked us a lot of questions. Since he is one of the world’s greatest cellists, we thought he would be telling us what to do, but it was the opposite. That concert was a highlight for me, an amazing experience.”
In Brazil and other South American countries, nylon-string guitars are the most popular form of the instrument. “The guitar originally came to Brazil and most of South America with the Jesuits from Europe,” Luiz says. “Back then it was the Baroque guitar played fingerstyle. Today, the way we hold the guitar, the position of the hands, and the basic technique are pretty much same in BPM and classical guitar. We play fingerstyle and even incorporate some counterpoint in popular music, borrowing from classical music.”
Luiz advocates a technical approach favored in Brazil that employs free stroke for the right-hand, rather than a combination free and rest stroke. “Rest stroke doesn’t really serve Brazilian music,” he says. “The Spanish approach with picado and other flamenco techniques serves Spanish music and culture. Many people assume Brazilian music is played like Spanish music, but our approach and phraseology are different. When playing Brazilian music, classical guitarists should understand that they shouldn’t use apoyando [rest stroke]; it should be all tirando [free stroke].”
For Esquina de São Paulo with Danilo Brito, Luiz drew on both his background in MPB and his classical skills. Brito was in Brazil and Luiz at his home in Brooklyn during the planning stages. “Danilo sent me the names of the pieces he wanted to play,” Luiz recalls. “I knew them because in Brazil they are like standards are to American jazz musicians. I consider Danilo to be one of the world’s greatest choro players—certainly the best mandolinist in this music. He plays entirely by ear and knows more than 3,000 songs. He plays them in a very personal way, so I tailored my parts to his approach. He made recordings of the tunes for me, and I listened to hear how he was stretching phrases or playing some notes an octave higher, and where he filled in chords. I wrote out my parts and we made it like chamber music.”
Luiz’s brilliant 2021 solo album, Central Guitar: 20th- and 21st-Century Brazilian Guitar Works, showcases Brazilian classical composers exclusively, with two works by Radamés Gnattali, five by Camargo Guarnieri, three by Egberto Gismonti, and a Luiz original “Prelúdio No. 2.” Luiz rates Guarnieri among the top Brazilian orchestral composers. “Most people don’t know that he wrote six pieces for guitar,” Luiz says. “My doctoral thesis made a case that they should become part of the standard guitar repertoire.” Of legendary jazz and classical composer, pianist, and ten-string guitarist Gismonti, Luiz says, “Egberto is the perfect example of a Brazilian musician merging styles. He was trained in classical piano for ten years and later developed an interest in popular music and taught himself to play guitar. He has been my mentor for almost 20 years. Every time I go to Brazil, I spend time with him.”
For an upcoming solo project, Luiz asked Leo Brouwer, Sérgio Assad, Paulo Bellinati, and Marco Pereira to write for him. “Everyone responded immediately,” he says. “Sérgio wrote 24 studies. Brouwer wrote two pieces, including his “Sonata No. 7.” When the pandemic hit, it became the perfect opportunity to work on solo music. I couldn’t play with Douglas because he was in Brazil, so I was practicing this incredible new repertoire. Since then, David Leisner and Frederic Hand have written pieces for me.”
Full Schedule, Full Life
Luiz’s diverse musical life draws on a panoply of his skills. He is an accomplished arranger and composer who has written for such artists as classical flutist Marina Piccinini, jazz woodwind master Paquito D’Rivera, and the genre-defying string quintet Sybarite5, among others. “I am currently working on a sonata for Duo Sonidos [comprising] guitarist Adam Levin and violinist William Knuth,” Luiz says. “I was also commissioned by a group from New York and a foundation in Brazil to write my first guitar concerto.”
Recent premieres include an extended work he composed for piano, flute, and guitar for Brazilian guitarist Fábio Zanon, and a concerto for harpist Bridget Kibbey. They were debuted in London and Boston, in February and March 2022, respectively.
Luiz has a deep commitment to music education and serves as director of chamber music and head of guitar studies at New York’s Hunter College, head of guitar studies at Stony Brook University on Long Island, and teacher of guitar and special projects at Mannes School of Music. He began his education career as coordinator for a Brazilian project offering classical guitar instruction to underprivileged children, writing the program’s instructional methods specifically for those students. “I am of African descent, and many people in my country with that background living in poorer communities don’t have access to classical guitar,” he says. “I wanted to address that, even though my background was different. Since I came to the U.S., I travel and perform a lot, but I consider teaching the most important part of my career. I’m committed to my students. Teaching is working for others, and I really like that.”
Patience and Consistency
Luiz’s many concert bookings and teaching responsibilities mandate that he carefully manage his time. “I am also a husband and father, but I stay consistent with my practice schedule,” he says. “The 24 studies by Sérgio Assad are two hours long and the sonata plus the other works Brouwer wrote total 25 minutes. I feel they are trusting me with their music, so I need to be responsible with my practicing.”
Get stories like this in your inbox
Luiz excerpts technical exercises from repertoire he’s playing, rather than drilling scales, arpeggios, and études. He practices everything very slowly with a metronome for hand synchronization. “This is very important when preparing for a performance and to maintain a certain standard,” he says. “I teach my students about patience and consistency. It’s better to commit to a modest goal—like practicing two and a half hours every day—rather than planning to do four hours and then missing a day and trying to make it up another day.”
What He Plays
João Luiz plays Sérgio Abreu guitars with spruce tops, Brazilian rosewood back and sides, and 645mm scale length. He uses Augustine Regal Blue high-tension strings.
This article originally appeared in the July/August 2022 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.