Carlos Gardel, the mythical tango singer, was young, handsome, and at the pinnacle of his popularity when the plane that was carrying him to a concert crashed and he died, in 1935. But for all the people who are seated today at the sidewalks in Buenos Aires and listening to Gardel’s songs in their radios, that accident is irrelevant, because, they will tell you, “Today Gardel is singing better than yesterday, and tomorrow he’ll sing better than today”.
In one of his perennial hits, “My Beloved Buenos Aires”, Gardel sings: “The day I’ll see you again/My beloved Buenos Aires,/Oblivion will end,/There will be no more pain.” Omaramor is a fantasy on “My Beloved Buenos Aires”: the cello walks, melancholy at times and rough at others, over the harmonic progression of the song, as if the chords were the streets of the city. In the midst of this wandering the melody of the immortal song is unveiled.
Omaramor is dedicated to Saville Ryan, “whose fire transforms the world.”
Piazzolla: Four, for Tango
The work of Astor Piazzolla (1921-1992) has been aptly summarized as breaking with the traditional form of the Tango in the same ways Ravel did with the Viennese Waltz and Gershwin with the Blues. The “traditional form of the Tango” is a dance-song of Argentina developed before the 20th century out of such antecedents as the Cuban Habanera, which has a similar rhythm. Sudden, almost violent movements characterize this dance, performed by couples in a tight embrace. Similarly, the music contains sudden contrasts in rhythm and dynamics. Sentimentalized by American films, the “real” tango often contains song texts of an intensely emotional tone — sensual and bittersweet.
In many ways, Piazzolla was like an Argentine combination of George Gershwin and Aaron Copland. Learning first the bandoneón (button accordion), Piazzolla became interested in elevating his native Argentine music to the level of European art music. He studied piano with Sergei Rachmaninoff and composition with Nadia Boulanger, only to be shunned in Argentina for attempting to revolutionize the national dance. Eventually, the Argentines understood and respected his music.
At some point, Piazzolla promised to compose a work exclusively for the Kronos Quartet, which materialized in 1988 as Four, for Tango. This four-minute piece offers many of the “special” effects that have made the Kronos Quartet famous: various slides, varieties of pizzicato, percussive effects using the back of the bow to tap the instrument’s body, etc. In brief episodes, we hear a fragmented tango melody and intrinsic rhythmic accompaniment. In fact, we could say that rhythm dominates Four for Tango.
Schwertsik: Adieu Satie, Op. 86
Kurt Schwertsik (1935- ), after conventional musical training, found his voice as a composer. After studies at the University of Music and Performing Arts Vienna (at the time called The Academy of Music), he was at first attracted to Serialism (atonal music without reference to any key). At first he studied with avant-garde composer Karlheinz Stockhausen at Cologne and Darmstadt around 1960, but then rejected Serialism in favor of a personal brand of tonal music. He has continued in that vein to the present time, and has met with success in doing so. Many of his works have been brought out in print by prominent publishers. He has also garnered several awards and prizes, notably the Silver Medal for Service to the City of Vienna (2006).
The title, Adieu Satie, refers to the French composer Erik Satie (1866-1925), whose 3 Gymnopédies for piano were well known to other French composers, notably Claude Debussy (who orchestrated one of them). Schwertsik’s tribute, Adieu Satie, is scored for string quartet and bandoneon (button accordion). The composer’s own program note for the work begins with the movement titles —
2.Darius en vacances [Darius on vacation]
3.Le Coq et l’Arlequin [The Cock and The Weather-Cock]
4.Gymnopédie [title concocted by composer Eric Satie]
5.Clownerie acrobatique [Acrobatic Clown Trick]
— and continues poetically:
You monastic clown,
who wished to banish the bourgeois from art
and disturb the hushed solemn whisperings of lofty art-lovers
with music hall, cabaret and the circus.
who refused to distinguish high from low art
good taste from bad
simple from incomprehensible ideas.
You patron saint,
of a modern ideal, which is my homeland
where I always wished to be: Utopia.
You navigator of time,
salvage the soul of modernity destroyed by Fascism
in your own chariot vanishing into eternity.
Adieu SatieTranslated by Richard Stokes © 2003
D’Rivera: Wapango (String Quartet Version)
A native Cuban, Paquito D’Rivera (1948- ) grew up in Havana. His father, a saxophonist, was his first teacher, who taught him to play the saxophone. He also took Paquito to Havana nightclubs to hear top-notch musicians, both Cuban and American, and to events featuring bands and symphony orchestras. In 1960, Paquito began studies at the Havana Conservatory, where he learned to play the clarinet as well as continuing formal music classes and saxophone lessons.
With pianist classmate Chucho Valdés, Paquito formed the jazz-pop band Irakere in 1973, which played a fusion of jazz, rock, classical, and Cuban music. The group went on to win a Grammy Award in 1980 for Best Latin Recording for their album, Irakere. By that time, the band was well established, touring frequently, and Paquito had a wife and children.
However, the Communist Cuban government during this time had become oppressive, placing constraints on his music in the 1960s-1970s, labeling it “imperialist” and officially discouraging citizens from listening to it. A meeting with Che Guevara gave Paquito impetus to defect from Cuba, and in early 1980 he did so, gaining asylum in the U.S. Embassy, promising (successfully) to bring his close family out of Cuba.
Since 1980, Paquito’s career has blossomed. With his various ensembles, he has performed in many of the world’s most prestigious venues; he has been granted numerous national awards; he has recorded prolifically; and he has received more than a dozen Grammys.
Latin American musical styles have continued to be at the forefront of his compositional interests, and he has branched out in several international directions. For example, his 5-minute piece, Wapango, has its basis in a native Mexican dance, the huapango. Robert Stevenson, expert on the music of Mexico writes,
The huapango, a dance indigenous to the hot country between Tampico and Veracruz, capriciously alternates rhythms between 3/4 in one measure and 6/8 in the next. The rapid gait of the beats and the alternation of accents produces an extremely agitated and nervous dance. The word huapango has been variously derived. . . . Whatever derivation be accepted, the dance itself is mestizo [“mixed” Spanish and indigenous], not [purely] Indian.
D’Rivera’s Wapango freely employs these shifting accents. However, the main focus of the music at first is its flowing melody. This is varied in different ways and passed to and fro between the instruments, developed slightly here and there between phrases from the main melody. We often hear a free alternation between “sung” melody and dance impulse. In the end, the dance wins out.
Piazzolla: Five Tango Sensations
Astor Piazzolla and his various “combos” had, by 1980, established the Argentine Tango as both a sensual dance and a platform for serious composition. Before the 1980s, Piazzolla had been rather a “folk” musician in his compositions and playing style. However, during the 1980s, he learned as much as he could about Classical and Modern Music. Thus, during that decade he developed new aspects and features in his own compositions. Now he employed more dissonance and special effects (especially for bowed string instruments), and new energy infused his works. He also was influenced by (and performed with) famous Classical and Jazz musicians, for example, the Kronos Quartet and Lalo Schifrin.
Eventually, the Argentines had understood and respected his newer music. He went on to compose national operas and music for Argentine films as well as presenting significant concerts in Buenos Aires and on the international scene. Piazzolla also contributed music to the Marlon Brando film, Last Tango in Paris.
Five Tango Sensations had been “distilled” around 1983 from an earlier suite for one of Piazzolla’s groups. He first performed Sensations with a string quartet in Munich. In 1988, Piazzolla returned to New York to play Five Tango Sensations with the Kronos Quartet in a Central Park concert. Soon afterward he made an Elektra-Nonesuch recording of the work with them. It turned out to be the last recording in his life. Partly for that reason, the Five Tango Sensations CD became a phenomenal “hit,” remaining at the top of the Classical Music chart for more than a year.
“Asleep.” The bandoneon, both unaccompanied and accompanied by the strings, leads the music. (This passage is also repeated at the beginning of movements 2, 3, and 5.) This is mainly a three-note figure, heard in repetition and at various pitch levels. The bandoneon spins out this repetitious phrasing into longer ideas, freely improvising flourishes while the first violin plays counterpoint to them.
“Loving.” The strings now come to the fore as equal partners with the bandoneon, especially the high solo by the first violin. The strings’ trembling harmonies illustrate the movement’s title audibly.
“Anxiety.” Now we hear definite a definite quick dance impulse. Again quick, the music begins as a lively, agitated free fugue for the whole ensemble led by the bandoneon. Then, this surrenders to a quick repetitive rhythm (led by the bandoneon). Strings now play a more important role, drawing the music into a march just before the wind-up.
“Despertar.” A soft solo line from the bandoneon draws us into an intimate movement reminiscent of old romantic movie music. A four-note motive dominates here in a melody soon heard as a violin solo soon joined by the bandoneon. The music subtly becomes ominous, then passionate, then softly intimate. We have now come full circle to the four-note idea that built the first movement. Now, however, individual instruments hang brief comments on the sustained ending chord to close this movement.
“Fear.” Piazzolla begins this finale with the music that opened “Asleep,” the first movement. After the strings join in, the music grows in subtly new ways, awakening to new developments in quasi-improvisatory ways. Here is a musical commentary on the first movement, enhanced by knocking sounds from the bandoneon. “Trembling” strings softly accompany. And the work ends in a quiet, ghostly atmosphere.
Notes by Dr. Michael Fink 2022
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