New tango, the music of Astor Piazzolla, is the fulcrum of this program. Osvaldo Golijov wrote Last Round as a sort of tribute to Piazzolla, and Alberto Ginastera was Piazzolla's first composition teacher. Piazzolla's tango revolution was very much a reflection of its time and place - the political, economic, and cultural turmoil and ferment of Argentina in the second half of the 20th century. Yet even at the time it proved readily transferable, appealing to hearts and minds, ears and feet, around the world, and it continues to cast a long and inspiring shadow across poly-cultural musicians and audiences today.
Born in Mar del Plata, Piazzolla immigrated to New York with his family, where he grew up on the Lower East Side. Sports and other activities interested him far more than did the tango, the music of his father. The gift of a bandoneón began to change that, however.
"The first bandoneón that I had my Papa gave me when I was eight years old," Piazzolla recalled in one version of the event, although he also said it was when he was nine. "He brought it wrapped in a box, and I was happy, believing that it was the skates that I had asked for many times. That was deceptive, however. In place of the skates I encountered an apparatus that I had never seen in my life. Papa sat himself on a chair, placed the thing between my arms, and said to me: 'Astor, this is the instrument of the tango, I want you to learn to play it.' My first reaction was to complain. The tango was the music that he listened to almost every night when he returned from work, and which I did not like."
Though its moaning wheeze, seductive and sarcastic, is the quintessential sound of tango, the bandoneón is of German origin, a button accordion invented by one Heinrich Band in the 1840s and brought to South America in the great wave of immigration. Models differ, but the South American instrument typically has 71 buttons arranged in patterns that are quite difficult to master for anyone used to keyboard instruments.
In characteristic fashion, the first music that Piazzolla played seriously on the bandoneón was Bach, which he learned from the Hungarian pianist Bela Wild. Whatever his early reservations, however, Piazzolla eventually took to the instrument and the tango repertory. He was 16 years old when his family returned to Argentina, and he was soon working regularly in the best tango orchestras, including that of Aníbal Troilo. In 1944 Piazzolla left the Troilo band to form his own ensemble, the Orquesta del 46, to play his own compositions. At that time he also was studying composition with Ginastera. A symphony he composed in 1954 for the Buenos Aires Philharmonic earned him a scholarship to study in Paris with Nadia Boulanger, who advised him to cultivate the tango as his true mode of expression.
This he did with increasing assurance and originality after returning to Argentina the following year. He formed the Octeto Buenos Aires and then the Quinteto Nuevo Tango as the performing vehicles for his compositions, working out of his own club.
From the 1960s comes La muerte del ángel (from a series of 'angel' pieces), one of the distinctive pieces with which Piazzolla shook the conservative world of tango. "Nuevo tango = tango + tragedy + comedy + whorehouse" was an equation Piazzolla used to define his new direction. To that could be added greater harmonic sophistication - chromatic lines over chains of dominant sequences, much like baroque ground bass forms - and an elusive jazz swing.
Piazzolla's Bandoneón Concerto (also titled "Aconcagua" by the publisher Aldo Pagani, because "this is the peak of Astor's oeuvre, and the [highest mountain] peak in South America is Aconcagua") was composed in 1979. The Concerto is cast in three movements of classical fast-slow-fast disposition. The soloist enters immediately with a fiercely focused tango, goosed by harp and percussion under powerful string chords. The first movement includes a singing central section and two cadenzas before driving to a whooping close.
The lyrical second movement begins with the bandoneón alone, ultimately joined by the harp in an elegantly pensive duet. After building to a more agitated climax, the movement ends with a soft restatement of the opening theme.
The third movement has much in common with "La muerte del ángel" - the initial walking bass line, the rhythmically offset, upward leaps of the solo entry. This finale is based on a very danceable, streetwise tango Piazzolla first used in his soundtrack for the film Con alma y vida. "I didn't know how to finish it," Piazzolla said. "And then I told myself: I give them a tango so the erudite know that when I want I can write like them, and when I want I can do my thing." At the end, Piazzolla adds a section labeled "Melancolico Final," a tenderly tuneful tango that then dissolves into a final fury that is almost pure rhythm.
Golijov's Last Round, for string orchestra, was commissioned by the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group and premiered in the fall of 1996. "I composed Last Round (the title is borrowed from a short story on boxing by Julio Cortázar) as an imaginary chance for Piazzolla's spirit to fight one more time," Golijov wrote. "The piece is conceived as an idealized bandoneón. There are two movements: the first represents the act of a violent compression of the instrument and the second a final, seemingly endless opening sigh (it is actually a fantasy over the refrain of the song 'My Beloved Buenos Aires,' composed by the legendary Carlos Gardel in the 1930s). But Last Round is also a sublimated tango dance. Two quartets confront each other, separated by the focal bass, with violins and violas standing up as in the traditional tango orchestras. The bows fly in the air as inverted legs in criss-crossed choreography, always attracting and repelling each other, always in danger of clashing, always avoiding it with the immutability that can only be acquired by transforming hot passion into pure pattern."
The first movement is a propulsive distillation of nuevo tango gestures and Piazzolla's rhythmic obsessions. The second movement, "Muertes del ángel," is a tango elegy both impassioned and reflective, as rich in affect as it is in effects. Golijov's string writing captures the quintessential sound of Piazzolla and tango, the moaning wheeze of the bandoneón, at once seductive and sarcastic.
Piazzolla enjoyed tango-related puns and allusions, and Tangazo joins a long list of works such as "Tangus Dei," "Tangata del alba," "Libertango," "Tristango," etc. Tangazo opens with chromatic lines grumbling up from basses and cellos into an introduction of searing harmonic intensity. Flute, clarinet, and percussion usher in a jittery tango, first given to the oboe. There are poised lyrical episodes, including a slow section featuring horn solos, but there is an edge to this music not softened by the dying ending.
Or at least there should be. Tangazo was first performed in 1970 in Washington, D.C., by the Ensemble Musical de Buenos Aires, not entirely to Piazzolla's satisfaction.
"The Ensemble Musical de Buenos Aires gave a good account of it," he later recalled, "but somewhere it lost a pinch of salt and pepper. Those classical musicians are like that - they are from Buenos Aires, Argentineans, and yet it seems that the tango shames them. That is an old division that exists between the classical and the popular. The musicians of the Colón [the legendary Buenos Aires opera house] look at those of the tango as if they were trash. And it should not be so. It is a big lie. Some of the musicians of the Colón deserve to be in the worst nightclub in Buenos Aires. As I have played in some of those places, I can speak with knowledge of the subject."
Alberto Ginastera was only three years out of the National Conservatory himself in 1941, when Piazzolla turned up on his doorstep as his first pupil, following up a chance recommendation for a teacher. Ginastera had already achieved a notable success with his ballet Panambí and was a work on another, Estancia.
"Ginastera was the teacher who gave me the foundation," Piazzolla later recalled. "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 I was playing with Troilo, and with the majority of my colleagues I could only talk about soccer and gambling."
The Variaciones concertantes were composed in 1953, during a difficult period for Ginastera, as political conflicts with the Perón government forced him to resign as director of the music conservatory at the National University of La Plata. This was a central work of the "subjective nationalism" of Ginastera's second stylistic period, in which folkloric and traditional materials are idealized and sublimated in a personal way. One characteristic musical symbol of this is harmony derived from the open strings of the guitar, as heard in the harp under the solo cello statement of the theme at the beginning, and again before the final variation. (These pitches - E, A, D, G, B - also represent the main key areas of the whole set.)
Two interludes and seven variations featuring different solo instruments come between these statements of Ginastera's theme. The final variation, for the full ensemble, is a high-voltage malambo, the competitive gaucho dance that was another prime symbol for Ginastera. The steady repeated notes represent tapping feet, with virtuosic and jazzy flourishes coming from all instrumental points.
-- John Henken is the Los Angeles Philharmonic's Director of Publications.