The Indianapolis Chamber Orchestra May 15 Piazzolla Centenary, performed live at Clowes Hall, invited us to compare and contrast the music of Astor Piazzolla (1921-1992), the "Tango Master" with that of his teacher and contemporary composer, Alberto Ginastera (1916-1983), and with rising star Gabriela Lena Frank, born in 1971.
The May 15 program, which can be accessed virtually, is part of the ICO's spring programming which includes a free June 2 concert at Garfield Park.
Stitching Piazzolla together with Ginastera and Frank is the thread of the immigrant experience and vagabond life. While Piazzolla is the celebrant at the centenary of his March 11, 1921 birth to Italian immigrants who came to Argentina for a better life, we best understand his revolutionary bent in concert with works by Ginastera and Frank.
A half-century ago, Piazzolla was determined to extend the traditional style of tango that arose in the 18th century along the border between Argentina and Uruguay, in the streets of Buenos Aires and Montevideo. He was exercising his classical connection with the adventurous and structural audacious legacies of Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven. His individualism both as a composer and as a virtuoso bandoneon player assured the people’s music also would be at home in concert halls.
Piazzolla’s journey to what Barbara Jenpson notes, in her March 8, 2021, Wall Street Journal column, as “music as mercurial emotionally as it is stylistically, veering from longing and regret to raunchy exuberance,” is part of the fabric of constant relocations within the immigrant experience. In 1925, the Piazzolla family left their recently acquired Argentinian along the Atlantic coast in the resort city of Mar del Plata, where The tango allegedly was woven from the African candombe, the Cuban habanera, and the waltzes and polkas of the European immigrants.
They lived for a decade in New York City’s Greenwich Village, where jazz and klezmer wafted along the streets and Piazzolla absorbed this along with the structure of the tango at home, via his father’s listening to recordings. Ultimately, it was his father’s gift of a bandoneon — a unique German instrument that was adopted to give voice to the tango temperament — that led Piazzolla to bind together the diverse sounds and movement of those living as outliers in underbelly neighborhoods. In his subsequent re-defining of the tango, Piazzolla takes us viscerally into the heart, blood, and soul of the immigrant in constant pursuit of stability.
Piazzolla’s structural gift comes with acknowledgment of the sultry pause both at entry and at the exit — that wow walk, chin up, eyes forward, to fill a void coming and going with ambition, aplomb; never looking back. It’s the poetry in the music. I grew up in a household that venerated Piazzolla. We, too, were outsiders in the process of claiming a rightful space, daring to enter with vigor, grasping confidence to exit with verve.
How did this come about?
Piazzolla's tango revolution was very much a reflection of his time and place — the political, economic, and cultural turmoil and ferment in Argentina unspooling simultaneously with the verdant pan-African-American experience in the second half of the 20th century. Tango and jazz, along with klezmer, are part of that cultural movement, readily transferable to any locale, existing comfortably among composers, players, dancers and audiences. And that sensibility of personal eminence within group diversity is what the ICO players gifted, alongside the virtuosity of guest bandoneón artist Hector del Curto for Piazzolla’s tone poem, “The Four Seasons of Buenos Aires,” composed between 1965-1970. ICO Soloists were rising up in a contest between harmony and invention as a walk between seasons, living proof of change as the constant.
Through its moaning wheeze, simultaneously seductive and sarcastic, this button-down accordion, invented in Germany by Heinrich Band, became the quintessential sound of tango in the 1840s, as part of the great wave of European immigration to South America.
When the Piazzolla family left NYC and returned to Argentina in 1936, the web was cast. From the multicultural New York City milieu in which he spent his formative years, and from the classical composers he studied, Astor Piazzolla created his own compositional and playing style. The master teacher Nadia Boulanger recognized, and pushed, his unique talent to absorb and draw from experience, and thus to bring a fresh and penetrating way for a listener to become at one with a piece of music. Piazzolla’s affinity with the tango is a haunting memory that never leaves the body of the listener once experienced.
When I looked around Clowes Hall on May 15, 2021, I recognized I wasn’t the only one moving in my seat to Pablo Ziegler arrangements from Piazzolla’s original quintet scores. For me, Piazzolla’s glyph on Vivaldi’s original 17th-century observation of our changing relationship with each season resonates as well with Hindemith’s “Four Temperaments.” I have to move, and I have to imagine living a year in Argentina — its temperament via Piazzolla becoming part of the way I learn to connect with diverse spaces.
One can understand what motivated Piazzolla. He played Bach when first he connected with his father’s gift of the bandoneón. It is not much of a stretch to understand why Bach’s relationship with the harpsichord has resonance with Piazzolla and the bandoneón, But while Bach’s motivation is seeking spiritual depth with God, it is the relationship between humankind and nature that Piazzolla brings to our cognizance. Tango, for Piazzolla, is the journey. The destination is the motivating factor for Bach — and it’s toward heavenward ascent.
“Libertango,” composed in 1974 in Milan, marks Piazzolla’s break from classical tango. ’Tango Nuevo’ arrived as raw, risqué, fusing tango with modern jazz, where improvisation is central — everyone’s voice has a respectful moment, a conversation within instances of harmony and of dissonance; counterpoint and fusion. The story of traditional tango is push and pull, independence and dependence, note against note in the configuration of body with body. One dances. That’s the point from which Piazzolla walked away — “For me, tango was always for the ear rather than the feet,” he wrote in his arranger’s notes. “Libertango stands for the freedom which I allow for my musicians. Their limits are defined solely by the extent of their own capabilities and not through any exterior pressure.”
The ICO closed its Piazzolla tribute with a smoky, sultry rendition of oblivion. Composed in 1982, it grows as an origin link to the milonga, faster, with fewer pauses. A form of rhythmic walking, it is considered a forerunner to the tango. Oblivion moves from its initial melancholy to spin a haunting memory. We recall it as the theme music for the film ‘Enrico IV.’
Along with some four dozen other works, it is part of Piazzolla’s credits as a composer for film and television. In all, Piazzolla is credited with 1,000 compositions.
The interesting bit of history is that in 1941, when Piazzolla arrived at Alberto Ginastera’s doorstep as a private student, Ginastera fresh out of the National Conservatory, already had a resume, including a composer of ballets, with professional ties to Lincoln Kirstein and to Aaron Copland. And therein lies a greater story that awaits more fulsome retelling. With the involvement of the US in WWII, the Kirstein commission for Estancia [Ranch] would go on hold for 70 years — finally gaining its premiere with New York City Ballet in 2010.
According to John Henken, the Los Angeles Philharmonic's director of publications, in notes posted on the symphony’s site, Piazzolla lovingly credits Ginastera as “the teacher who gave me the foundation. With him I learned orchestration, still one of my strong points, and everything that I would further develop with Nadia Boulanger in Paris. I spent almost five years with him, and I remember that time not only because of the technique I learned but the humanism he taught me.”
"Alberto used to say that a musician could not just stay in his scores. He would say that a musician has to know about painting, literature, theater, film. For me this was like getting an electric shock. In those days, with the majority of my colleagues I could only talk about soccer and gambling."
Each composer has gained acclaim in their respective fields. With Matthew Kraemer conducting, the ICO proved its own virtuosity, beautifully presenting Ginastera’s ‘Variations Concertantes.’
Composed in 1953, it is the quintessential emulation of the solitude we feel within ourselves when we’re at odds with a politically harsh mainstream.
At this point in his career, Ginastera was trying to find a safe place inside the Perón dictatorship. As a central work of the subjective nationalism of his second stylistic period, folkloric and traditional materials are idealized and sublimated in a personal way — as a metamorphosis that constructs new themes from the principal theme and are spun out by a dozen soloists who achieve unity as chamber players. Variations Concertantes is monumental in its conciseness.
The ICO opened the program with Gabriela Lena Frank’s Concertino Cusqueño, derived from Peruvian culture and British composer Benjamin Britten.
“I can indulge in my own enjoyment of personalizing the symphonic sound [of Britten] while allowing individuals from the ensemble to shine [as they would in a Peruvian religious ceremony],” she offered in her program notes.
Throughout the program, performed without intermission, ICO soloists gained our attention and applause.