Photo: R. Ravindran
Brothers Slava and Leonard Grigoryan hardly spent time together growing up. Slava, older by nine years, left for London when he was just 18 to make his mark as a solo guitarist, and Leonard stayed behind in Australia, practicing hard so he could one day play with his big brother.
That day came a few years later when Slava returned home and found that his brother, then 14, had turned into a ‘fantastic musician’. “At the same time, I’d gotten quite tired of always being on the road by myself – being a solo guitarist is a very lonely existence,” says Slava. “We started developing a repertoire for both of us, and we’ve never really looked back.”
In the eight years since, the Grigoryan Brothers, as they’re known, have made a name for themselves as the finest guitar duo in Australia, and have toured across the world, from Russia to Japan, Austria to South Africa, to universal acclaim.
And along the way, they’ve more than made up for all those years spent apart. “We’re kind of discovering each other now, later in life, without all the baggage other siblings carry with them,” says Slava. “We’re brothers, of course, but we feel more like friends,” says Leonard.
Playing together has also opened up a whole new world to them musically. “We arrange a lot of music, we commission a lot of composers to write for us – the solo guitar repertoire, in comparison, is much more traditional,” says Slava. “What you can do as a soloist is more limited as well – when you add a guitar, the range and the possibilities are endless,” says Leonard.
That range, with these two immensely talented guitarists, is quite mind-boggling. Trained in the Western classical style by their father (both their parents are violinists), the brothers were encouraged to explore a variety of influences from early on, whether it was contemporary jazz, flamenco, rock or even Indian fusion. “One of the very first concerts we were ever taken to – I was 12 and Len must have been three! – featured John Mclaughlin, Kai Eckhardt and Trilok Gurtu,” recalls Slava. “And my first band in school played Jimi Hendrix.”
Today, their music is such an eclectic mix of styles – classical, jazz, Latin guitars and more – that the brothers don’t even try to categorise it. “For us, there has to be a showcase of all the different possibilities on the guitar,” says Slava. “Playing beautiful, lyrical ballads is just as meaningful as playing technically demanding classical pieces.”
And they revel in its international flavour. “As a guitarist, you feel like you have a very international ownership – we’re from a Russian background [their parents emigrated from Kazakhstan], we grew up in Australia learning classical guitar, and yet we feel very close to Spanish and Brazilian music!” says Slava.
Plus, they’ve done an album on French Impressionistic music, are planning one on Russian piano music, and every now and again, they take a break from being the ‘Grigoryan Brothers ‘ to team up with another pair of musical siblings from Egypt (who play the Oud and the Req) and perform as the ‘Band of Brothers.’
“We bring contemporary guitar influences into their world, and see what happens,” he says with a smile. “It’s a lot of fun – we were recently in China with them for the World Expo, and our album will be out next year.”
When they’re not travelling around the world or extensively touring across Australia (their last tour had 45 concerts), Slava and Leonard are… well, they’re hanging out with each other. “We have the same non-musical interests – we play golf together, we love food and wine and cooking…” says Slava. “So even when we’re not playing, we end up seeing each several times a week,” says Leonard.
“And after all these years, we’re not sick of each other at all!” says Slava, laughing.
A standing ovation and two encores later, the packed audience at the Taj Coromandel Ballroom were still loath to let the Grigoryan Brothers leave the stage. That’s the sort of impact the guitar duo had in their first-ever performance in the city.
The music was gorgeous right from the get-go. They opened the concert (presented by the Australian high Commission, Delhi) with the incredibly soulful ‘Distance’ from their 2009 album of the same name, a melodic piece (full of delicate strumming and harmonies) that defied categorisation. This was followed by two movements from the more traditionally classical ‘Suite Bergmasque’ by the French composer Debussy (adapted for guitar by their father) – first the lively, playful “Minuet”, and then the sweetly evocative “Clair de lune”.
The variety in their repertoire was on ample display as they performed two whimsical and quirky contemporary compositions by Ralph Towner, and then the infectiously high-energy ‘Jongo’ by Brazilian composer Paolo Bellinati. Every note was perfect, their synchronisation impeccable even in the most frenetic interludes, and when they stopped to beat out a complex rhythm on their guitars during ‘Jongo’, it was, of course, to perfect time.
By the time they played their own version of the Beatles classic ‘Blackbird’, it was no longer a surprise that they’d added so many unique flourishes and variations that the original seemed almost staid by comparison. Really, can you blame the crowd for bringing them back not once, but twice?