Violinist Philippe Quint is an old hand at themed projects, like his recent “Chaplin’s Smile” concerts and accompanying album of instrumental arrangements of songs by Charlie Chaplin. The Aspect Chamber Music Series works with themes too, presenting lecture-enhanced concerts like “J.S. Bach – The Art of Fugue” and “When Tchaikovsky Met Brahms.” Maybe it was inevitable that a pairing of these generous musical minds would occur.
Marking the Centennial of the Great 20th-Century Composer
The occasion was the centennial of the 20th-century Argentinian composer Astor Piazzolla. Though there was little lecturing this time, the concert, labeled “Astor Piazzolla: Between Angels & Demons,” nonetheless gave a full house at the Bohemian National Hall in New York City a multimedia experience. Energizing too was a palpable joyfulness at the return to live in-person performance after many months of unfulfilling virtual events. The audience as well as the six-piece ensemble on stage seemed to feel this sense of revival in equal measure.
Quint had assembled the band especially for the occasion. It would have made Piazzolla proud. To start with, neuvo tango‘s most distinctive timbral element comes from the bandoneón, a relative of the accordion that originated, Quint explained, in Germany as a miniature substitute for a church organ. In the 20th century Piazzolla elevated it from relative obscurity to an angelic vessel for mournfulness, joy, and much in between. Bandoneón virtuoso Rodolfo Zanetti conveyed the sly deviltry as well as the emotional range that Piazzolla’s beautiful, impassioned music demands.
Piano, guitar, bass, and Quint’s violin rounded out the band, along with dynamic vocalist Sofía Tosello on a few numbers. One of those was “Yo soy María,” the showstopping aria from Piazzolla’s tango opera María de Buenos Aires. Tosello put it across – along with the song “Siempre se vuelve a Buenos Aires,” deftly arranged by guitarist Federico Díaz – with the spellbinding presence and focus of a great cabaret singer, engaging us with subtle vibrato and commanding us with straight-tone clarity.
The Four Seasons of Buenos Aires
Piazzolla’s Estaciones Porteñas, commonly known in English as the Four Seasons of Buenos Aires, formed the heart of the program. Though a bit more complex than some of the tangos, these four pieces have a similar flavor and warm vitality. This was the first time I’d heard them played live with the quintet instrumentation Piazzolla originally intended, and I appreciated the music more than I had in the past.
Alternately florid and tasteful, delighting and saddening, somatic and spectral, the pieces benefited too from readings by Tosello of four corresponding poems written for the occasion by Lila Zemborain. Flowing and semi-abstract, these texts, read in Spanish, were another example of the specialness one always finds at Aspect concerts.
This “melancholic…encounter,” Zemborain writes in “Winter” (translated from the Spanish by Rosa Alcalá), “transpires in the frozen shimmer of the eye / looking at what should have been and it was you who finally appeared / with all that energy that overwhelmed you for / so many years…”
The music that followed that reading featured a solo piano passage played with elegant finesse by Ahmed Alom. The melancholy evinced by the poem dominated as Quint took over the melody on the violin supported by deep portamentos from Pedro Giraudo’s bass.
A Visceral Concert Experience
My understanding is that unlike Vivaldi’s Four Seasons concerti, the Estaciones Porteñas have nothing programmatic about them – they’re entirely impressionistic. But it didn’t feel quite that way in these performances. In “Spring,” for example, one could easily picture small animals bounding through a field or a bog, and even hear insects when Díaz simulated claves by tapping on his electric guitar.
OK, maybe that one’s a bit of a stretch. But during the agitation of “Autumn” I vividly imagined leaves blowing in the wind. This piece was an especially strong example of the sensuousness that Quint’s combo brought to Piazzolla’s music. Theirs was the kind of performance that makes you resist the urge to close your tired eyes and just listen. We gained from seeing the artistic flow of the musicians’ physical efforts. And not just in the showy moments, like when, in “Summer,” Giraudo had to repeatedly swing his arm away from the fretboard to slap the back of his bass. (Though of course, rhythm is as essential to nuevo tango concert music as it is to a dance band at a Buenos Aires milonga, where potential dance partners catch each others’ eyes – something like the way a locked-in chamber ensemble connects with an audience.)
In fact Quint started off the concert by taking us to a real Buenos Aires club, with the energetic “Michelangelo ’70,” named for a nightclub where Piazzolla often played. “Muerte del Angel,” another highlight, had that visceral feel I mentioned above, of bodies in motion, in this case underlined cubistically with a Bach-like fugue. And the physicality really (and literally) stepped up at the concert’s end, when a pair of dancers arrived and elegantly danced to “Concierto para quinteto,” which Piazzolla had written for his own quintet. It was a smashing climax to a captivating concert.