Lives of Music and Physics, Lovingly Bound

11.25.10
Sérgio and Odair Assad
The New York Times

By Neil Tesser

In the Printers Row apartment shared by Sérgio Assad and Angela Olinto, two Latin Grammy awards occupy an inconspicuous spot in the office. In the kitchen, Stephen Hawking’s latest opus, “The Grand Design,” rests next to a MacBook containing Ms. Olinto’s review of the book written for the journal Physics Today.

These objects do not usually coexist in the same part of the time-space continuum, but they say a great deal about an extraordinary household, and a family that connects three generations of arts and science.

Ms. Olinto, 49, is an internationally known astrophysicist in the department of astronomy and astrophysics at the University of Chicago. She has expertise in several fields, including high-energy cosmic rays, but she also teaches a course called “Cosmology for Poets.” She spends much of her time in Chicago, except when visiting Europe or Asia for a conference, or Argentina for her semiannual visit to the massive Pierre Auger Observatory, which she helped design.

“Sérgio jokes that people think he’s smarter now — that if he’s married to me, he must be a smart guy,” she said, laughing.

Mr. Assad, 57, is half of what critics consider the world’s leading classical guitar duo, with his brother Odair. He almost won a third Latin Grammy in the ceremonies held Nov. 11; he was nominated twice for Contemporary Classical Composition. The Washington Post suggested that the brothers might be “the best two-guitar team in existence, maybe even in history.”

Living on separate continents — Odair lives in Brussels — they reunite to record and perform, most recently on a short United States tour that took them to Dominican University in River Forest last weekend. Their younger sister, Badi, also trained on classical guitar but has earned international fame as a pop and jazz artist.
“Angela would say I act like a scientist sometimes because I’m a space cadet, always in my own world, and the most brilliant and creative scientists are like space cadets, too,” Mr. Assad said. “But she is very organized herself. So I think she tells me that just to please me.”

Clarice Assad, Mr. Assad’s oldest child (by his first wife), is a highly regarded composer and pianist. At 31, she has already published nearly 40 works. She graduated from Chicago College of Performing Arts at Roosevelt University and now lives in New York.

Both Mr. Assad and Ms. Olinto have followed in their fathers’ footsteps. “My dad had been a physicist, though I didn’t actually know that when I decided to be a physicist,” Ms. Olinto said; he had left the field when she was a young child. She gravitated to the field while attending college in Rio de Janeiro, which she entered at 16, earning her doctorate from M.I.T. at 21.

Despite her precocity, she said, she was not a genius.

“Serge is a genius; Clarice is a genius,” she said. “I’m not dumb, let’s put it that way. ‘Genius’ to me is when somebody totally surprises me — and they do that.”

The admiration is mutual. “She’s amazing, very emotional but very logical,” said Ms. Assad, who bonded with Ms. Olinto after moving to the United States in 1996.

This is the third marriage for both. Ms. Olinto divorced her two previous husbands, both physicists. “I thought, let’s try another topic,” she said playfully.

Mr. Assad’s second wife died of cancer in 1994, at 38. About a year later, after the Assad brothers performed at Fermilab in Batavia, he met Ms. Olinto — who had moved to the Midwest in 1990 to do her postdoctoral work at Fermilab — and a trans-Atlantic romance bloomed. They married in 1998.

Mr. Assad and his brother grew up far removed from the Rio of Ms. Olinto’s youth, in several small cities in São Paolo state, where their Lebanese grandfather and Italian grandmother had landed among the wave of immigrants to Brazil at the end of the 19th century.

“They lived on a farm and had 16 kids, but my dad was the only one who loved music,” Mr. Assad said. “He learned to play mandolin from listening to recordings. Our house was filled with music; it was part of our daily life.”

As the brothers learned to play guitar and joined in the family musicales, their father determined they should get formal training.

“He thought we were very good and we should become classical musicians,” Mr. Assad said. “When I was 15, he took us to Rio so we could study. We were raised there, actually; later my father returned to his village. People thought he was completely crazy. But he created our career. If he hadn’t moved us in that direction, we’d probably be like him — doing something else and playing music on the side.”

These days, Mr. Assad spends half his time away from Chicago, teaching two days each week at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, where Ms. Olinto joins him as her schedule allows.

She revels in the variety of their marriage.

“We have a different life inside the house and outside,” Ms. Olinto said. “When you are married to someone who does the same thing as you, it can feel a little claustrophobic. I need more stuff. I need other questions. For me, it’s perfect to move from one world to the other.”