Length: c. 30 minutes
About this Piece
Vivaldi’s Spring, Summer, Autumn, and Winter were the first four of the 12 concerti in his Opus 8, The Contest between Harmony and Invention, in 1725. Vivaldi’s “Seasons” are program music, with virtually every passage describing an event that is set out in a sonnet accompanying each of the concerti. There are also descriptive directions to the players that are not in the sonnets. All this extra-musical symbolism was not to everyone’s taste, and the ones who found it most distasteful were the musicians most opposed to Vivaldian flashiness in the first place.
Two centuries later, Astor Piazzolla faced another sort of argument about propriety. If the distance of time makes it hard to appreciate Vivaldi’s true importance, geographical and cultural distance obscures the position of Piazzolla, who occupies something of a fringe position in the Eurocentric classical world.
Piazzolla’s roots were in the world of the tango. Like the tango itself, he was born in Buenos Aires, and like the tango, he quickly went elsewhere, moving with his parents to New York’s Little Italy when he was four. In his teens he returned to Buenos Aires, where he studied composition with the eminent Argentine composer Alberto Ginastera and played the bandoneon, a type of accordion (with buttons instead of keys), in tango orchestras.
Setting out on his own, Piazzolla quickly moved beyond the boundaries of traditional tango. His music expanded the use of dissonance and complex harmony and rhythm, and incorporated elements picked up from the classical and jazz repertoire. It forsook the dance hall for the concert hall, where his audiences were more likely to be classical or jazz fans than tango aficionados.
All musical genres, including the most popular, have their orthodoxies and their purists, and the tango is no exception. Piazzola’s non-tango influences made him a controversial figure in a community where some people took the tango very seriously. “I have had enough of people telling me that what I am not playing is not tango,” he said, probably more than once. One tango purist is said to have threatened him with a gun in the 1950s. Whether coincidentally or not, he left Argentina for several years after that, studying in Paris with Nadia Boulanger, who convinced him that he was, after all, a tango composer. He returned from Paris and formed the quintet (violin, bass, piano, guitar, and bandoneon) with which he did his best-known work in what he called “the New Tango.” Neither fish nor fowl, his music was destined either for the obscurity that befalls music that never finds an audience, or the prominence that comes with achieving the appeal to multiple audiences that music marketers call “crossover.” Toward the end of his life, Piazzolla’s music crossed over in a big way.
His Cuatros Estaciones Porteños (“The Four Seasons of Buenos Aires”), composed in 1969, are themselves fairly well traveled. Like much of his music, they have been arranged for a host of different instrumentations: Piazzolla recorded them with his own groups, and other versions include solo guitar and piano trio. The version heard tonight is a fairly free adaptation [by Russian composer Leonid Desyatnikov, arranged for solo violin and orchestra in 1996-98] made with Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons” in mind: the numerous quotations from those works (sometimes interpolated and sometimes worked into the fabric of the music) are not from Piazzolla’s pen. But keep in mind that Piazzolla’s own performances of his music were often full of improvisation, so additions or alterations by performers or arrangers can be seen as part of the game.
–Lawyer and lutenist Howard Posner has also annotated programs for the Los Angeles Baroque Orchestra and for the Coleman Chamber Concerts.