Piazzolla Cien Años: Lord of the Tango@100

There is a now famous photograph of the great Ástor Piazzolla that is iconic for so many reasons. Chief among them is the manner in which Mr Piazzolla has been captured by the photographer. It is what cinematographers might call a ‘freeze-frame’, but the master seems not at all to be frozen in time. Instead looking at the photograph we find Mr Piazzolla, large, gnarled hands strapped into the reed organs on either side of the bandoneón. His arms are outstretched, and with a gasp of air, the bellows fully extended, he looks like a brooding, winged angel at the point of takeoff.

Any time now, you prepare for the arms to be brought together with fingers on the appropriate buttons of the reed organs on each side of his instrument. Then with a great enharmonic wheeze melody and harmony collide with that great intake of song-filled air, as if the instrument has come to life and is breathing in. Mr Piazzolla has launched into a breathtaking version of “Fugata” or “Adios Nonino” propelled ever forward in a series of his eloquent staccato notes, that soon bubble and flow rhythmically into one rhapsodic legato phrase after another. The great Ástor Piazzolla is now on song…

In the 1960s, when Mr Piazzolla fronted his celebrated orchestra, he would turn out in black coat-tails, arms swishing and churning about in the air about as he waved his slender baton, waving the tango onward, but early in his career – in the late-1950s, when the portal to the world of tango first opened to him – he fashioned for himself a provocative stance, just like the tangos he had begun to compose. Standing, with his weight on his left leg boldly pointed forward, his right leg bent slightly at the knee, he counterbalanced himself with his foot on a low footstool, the bellows of his bandoneón resting lightly on his knee, while he pumped the air in and out of the reed organs, pummeling the buttons rapidly.

“Mr Piazzolla’s signature playing position was not unlike the stance of a payador, guitar propped on knee as in Juan Carlos Morel’s Payada en una pulpería, from about 1840…” – Robert Farris Thompson [Tango: The Art History of Love]

Mr Piazzolla as payador and tanguero all rolled into one, is completely in control of his iconography because from that position he can see what he and his fellow musicians are doing. From 1921, the year of his birth until 1937, his return to Buenos Aires, Argentina, Mr Piazzolla lived with his parents in New York City. Here he came to be exposed to a different kind of swagger. Ragtime music had begun to roll into swing – the swing of jazz. This could never have been lost on the impressionable teenager. His sound world was indubitably changed – or rather reformed – forever, so that upon his return to Argentina he was already hearing music differently.

Inspired by the music of the 1940s, by Salgán and Pugliese who were transforming tango into art music, the young Piazzolla seized the provocative music and dance-form by the proverbial scruff of its neck and went to work revolutionising it in his own image and likeness. He elaborated the gifts of his predecessors’’ music, infusing it with the influences of Béla Bartók and Johann Sebastian Bach; he stirred in generous modal measures of cool jazz that he had acquired by listening to Gerry Mulligan, with whom he ended up playing. Thus began an epic surge of compositions and performances by Mr Piazzolla between 1955 and 1990. This which left its mark on the music of Argentina, perhaps just as indelibly as the mark left by one of his mentors and onetime teacher: Alberto Ginastera.

It was Ginastera who, noting a singular, mighty voice, pushed Mr Piazzolla towards greater study and composition. Dizzy Gillespie was also influential – jazz was larger than life everywhere and Dizzy had visited Buenos Aires, performing with Osvaldo Fresedo’s tango band at Fresedo’s Rendez-Vous nightclub in 1956. The encounter was also captured on Fresedo: Rendez-vous Porteño and on “Preludio no. 3”, Fresedo and Dizzy rediscover together the best of the habanera together , while on “Vida mía”, Dizzy plays tango, before breaking into bebop, scatting his way to the stars. It’s no wonder that Mr Piazzolla’s iconic nuevo tango features this north-south encounter – and more widely-speaking – also speaks to a generous infusion of Bartók, Bach, and milonga – and not surprisingly, factors in candombe, the rarely referred to African influence in all Argentinean art.

Astor Piazzolla en 1975 by Alicia D'Amico
Astor Piazzolla en 1975 by Alicia D’Amico

“Whatever Piazzolla did, his true love was tango. He loved her in wordplay [libertango, meditango, tristango, tanguedia], he loved her in ecstasy, he loved her in sadness…” – Robert Farris Thompson [Tango: The Art History of Love]

Ástor Piazzolla’s music confounded the critics of the day, some of whom despised what he was doing to their beloved music. They wanted fugues; he gave them something completely different. No matter what they thought, the musician was a sensation. Even as a youth, he had learned the tough ways of New York City and he took this into his music as well so much so that he became known as gato [to Anibal Triolo] and musically when he brought nuevo tango into its own in “Tres minutos”, for instance, adapting a Bartók eight-note scale, he did more to introduce a distant intelligence to the music of Buenos Aires. He made Bartók exciting in popular terms and he went on to blend a lament with a Bach passacaglia. To reach swing in ‘black’ terms, however, he had to reach no further than milonga and candombe.

Mr Piazzolla had the greatest success of the 1950s with his Octeto. He struck gold with a vibrant composition entitled “Tres minutos con la realidad”. He composed it after listening to Béla Bartók’s second violin concerto. He was clearly an idol. Bartók mixed Hungarian folk and European art music and thus became the perfect inspiration for a musician who was blending tango with other music of the world. But he didn’t just quote from other inspirational tunes; he examined the elements of those tunes  – modes, melodic patterns, meters, manners of ornamentation and more – to create anew in the language of tango.

In fact the master musician was honing his powers to create in several languages; and in small, medium and large musical formats too. All he needed was one major break. It came in 1954; one of his symphonies won him a French Embassy scholarship to study with the eminence gris of music composition – Nadia Boulanger, who had worked with Maurice Ravel and taught Aaron Copland as well. In Paris she taught the young Argentine counterpoint and other techniques he would later weave into tango. But her critical gift was to re-trigger his self-confidence, once broken – or at least shaken – by the critical responses from hometown reviewers. But it was Miss Boulanger who opened his eyes completely to his mission.

…she asked me how I made a living; I embarrassedly [sic] told her I wrote tangos. She said she loved tango and asked me to play some for her. I began to play “Triunfal” on the piano. After a minute she grabbed my hand and said: ‘Now that’s the real Ástor Piazzolla.’”

The real Ástor Piazzolla is who we know today; the great innovator – possibly the greatest innovator in Argentinean popular music. He has no peer, except perhaps Ginastera, who is to classical music in Argentina what Mr Piazzolla is to popular music. His epic journey continues long past 1992, when he passed into the everlasting realm. So much so that the fires of Mr Piazzolla’s creation: nuevo tango continues to burn, now seemingly with an eternal flame, one hundred years on. It is this flame that has lit the creative candelabras of musicians of every hue in the musical spectrum. Not surprising, then that one of them is the celebrated Uruguayan conductor Gisèle Ben-Dor, a fierce champion of South American music composers. Her brilliant work with the Pro Arte Chamber Orchestra of Boston features the prodigious composer and bandoneonist Juanjo Mosalini, and also features world premieres of works by both Piazzolla and Mosalini.

Piazzolla Cien Años - Juanjo Mosalini - Gisèle Ben-Dor - Boston Pro Arte Chamber Orchestra
Piazzolla Cien Años – Juanjo Mosalini – Gisèle Ben-Dor – Boston Pro Arte Chamber Orchestra

“I had absorbed so much of its [nuevo tango’s] language subconsciously; loved the unforgettable melodies… it takes genius to create such melodies-emotional ferocity and sizzling, complex rhythms…” – Raul Da Gama

Gisèle Ben-Dor is a conductor who clearly dines far further afield than many of her contemporaries, offering more than the meat-and-potatoes repertoire offered by a majority of her peers. Her interpretation of Mr Piazzolla’s great work “Aconcagua: Concerto for Bandoneón [1979]” gives new meaning to the phrase: “a sense of time and place”. Moreover, in these works, Ms Ben-Dor conveys the sense of Piazzolla being a distinctively Argentinean composer on the scale of Ginastera. In the concerto, for instance, she brings a special alertness to the pointing of phrase and building of form that makes sense of the composer’s unique way with tango.

Mosalini is not only one of todays “boys wonder of the bandoneón”, but also an accomplished composer and arranger to boot. But it is Ms Ben-Dor who must be principally credited for the deftness that she brings to the movements – especially the second, moderato movement – of the concerto. In doing so, she also fires up the virtuoso soloist. However, Ms Ben-Dor with a flexible but coherent movement takes her time to draw out the second “Moderato” movement, which steals in with sensuous reticence. Meanwhile, Mosalini, with his extraordinary abilities lends a Piazzollan nobility to both his own original compositions both of which are “world premiere” recordings. Conductor, orchestra and soloist, meanwhile, bring a special grace to the entrances and exits of Mr Piazzolla’s seminal work “The 4 Seasons of Buenos Aires” as well as to the well-known “Libertango.”

The manner in which each of Mr Piazzolla’s picturesque episode and naturalistic detail is called to mind, the synchronicity of motion and expressive intent within the concerto as well as in the other works is passionately conveyed. This recording is one of the most memorable of all those that now serve to mark the centenary celebrations of the Argentinean maestro, not simply by the grand scale of it all, but by the sizzling performances, the magnificent retelling of the Piazzolla story, by painting vivid pictures with picture and painting coming dramatically alive as if in the day when the great one himself inhabited these pieces.

“I have a vision that my work will still be heard in the year 2020 and also in the year 2030” – Ástor Piazzolla

Piazzolla once said that in answer to the question of his legacy. His art celebrates nearness, the kind of which brought tango dancers so close together… others only saw distance. And it is through this Mr Piazzolla joins the immortals, especially Jorge Luis Borges. The connection to Borges is tantalizing; both developed a vernacular kind of classicism, both loved milonga, and both brought Argentinian art to the world.

Gisèle Ben-Dor
Conductor Gisèle Ben-Dor

Gisèle Ben-Dor answers key questions about this definitive Piazzolla project:

Raul da Gama: What secrets has the music of Piazzolla revealed to you [that have not yet been revealed to anyone else]?

Gisèle Ben-Dor: It’s quite an original and mind bending question! I must say that my intuitive immediate response may sound more like a confession than a learned reply. I grew with the discipline of so called “classical” music which admitted no “crossovers”. Back in the day, and even through my many first forays into Latin American music, Piazzolla was simply out.

I remember as I was performing Ginastera’s last opera Beatrix Cenci in Geneva, I had the pleasure of making the acquaintance of Aurora Natola-Ginastera, a known cellist and the composer’s second wife. She almost made me promise that I would never perform Piazzolla in the same concert as I performed Ginastera. And in those days, it simply wasn’t done. Time passed, and some great virtuoso instrumentalists [Gidon Kremer, Daniel Barenboim, Yo Yo-Ma] began to play Piazzolla. They broke the taboo, but in my case, I had already become wonderful friends with Ginastera’s daughter, Georgina Ginastera. Her progressive and generous ideas totally supported the combination of Ginastera and Piazzolla as both being  great Argentine composers, each in his own world.

And here is the confession: I always felt nuevo tango was great, I had absorbed so much of its language subconsciously growing up in Uruguay, music that my parents loved and therefore I should not touch with a ten- foot pole but secretly loved, tango with its unforgettable melodies- it takes genius to create such melodies-emotional ferocity and sizzling, complex rhythms, but had harbored the fear that perhaps something was wrong with me! The new found acceptance of Piazzolla’s greatness cemented my intuitive conviction that “music- is -music- is -music”, that “cross-over” no longer signifies much, and that its secrets embrace a much broader spectrum than the conservative one I had grown with.

RdG: What was it like performing his most famous work [“Libertango”] and what did it mean to do so with Juanjo Mosalini?

GbD: I think that if you and I were statisticians we might be placing bets on which may be Piazzolla’s most famous work. Some would say “Adios Nonino”, others indeed “Libertango”, but others might place “Oblivion” or “La Muerte del Angel” at the top. In the case of “Libertango”, the essence of this work is its motoric drive and build- up in both dynamics and speed to a rousing, spinning mad dance.

There are many arrangements of this piece, and Juanjo’s is one of the very best. What I most admire in his performance of “Libertango” is the mastery of dynamics Juanjo possesses which allow him indeed to begin with a whisper – in his performances, it is unbelievable the range of dynamics he commands of his bandoneón – and augment the tension imperceptibly through the dynamics as the piece progresses, so that when the speed reaches its maximum level, one really doesn’t know how that happened, how we got there! It is that convincing.

Raul Da Gama
Based in Milton, Ontario, Canada, Raul is a poet, musician and an accomplished critic whose profound analysis is reinforced by his deep understanding of music, technically as well as historically.

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