Monday, January 9, 2023

A New Year with the Dalí Quartet, Part 2: Piazzolla & Ginastera

The previous post for the Dalí Quartet's concert focused on the first two works on the program: the 3rd Quartet by Arriaga and the 2nd Quartet by Silvestre Revueltas. This post covers the second half of the program, with Piazzolla's "Tango Ballet" and Ginastera's 2nd Quartet. 

The concert is Tuesday, January 10th (7:30), at Whitaker Center on Market Street between 2nd and 3rd Streets in downtown Harrisburg. Tickets will be available at the door. 

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Due to technical difficulties with the WiFi connection here at Dr. Dick Plaza (a.k.a. La Casa de Mercurio en retrógrada perpetua), combined with the effects of Whatever Variant of Post-Holiday Crud is going around resulting in, among other things, near-constant headaches of 5.2 on the Sviatoslav Richter Scale, I have been unable to finish work on these posts in a timely fashion. If you do not have time to read them before the concert, you can always read them after-the-fact and still gain some understanding of the music's background you'd heard live. 

Dick Strawser

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Astor Piazzolla with Nadia Boulanger in 1955

There is a famous anecdote that almost sounds apocryphal (given the number of variations on its details) but the end result is the same. The advice speaks volumes of truth for many composers, not just a 33-year-old Argentinian named Astor Piazzolla. In 1954, he had left Buenos Aires – at the urging of Argentina's leading “classical music” composer of the day, Alberto Ginastera (see below) – to study with one of the most influential teachers in Paris, Nadia Boulanger. However it happened, many young composers, especially from the United States, were drawn to Paris to study with her, ranging from Aaron Copland, Walter Piston, and Elliott Carter to Burt Bacharach and Joe Raposo (more famous for the songs he wrote for Sesame Street). 

In the early-1940s, Piazzolla – his childhood is complicated, as a boy moving to New York City before returning to his native Argentina – grew up in the world of tango bars and became a bandoneon player in various dance bands in the capital city. He met the pianist Artur Rubinstein, then living in Buenos Aires, who urged him to study with Ginastera, studying the scores of Stravinsky, Ravel and Bartók, listening to orchestra rehearsals by day and playing the dance clubs by night. By 1950, he gave up his own band to concentrate on composing “serious” music and in 1953 his “Buenos Aires Symphony” won a competition and was given its premiere. Despite a fight breaking out in the audience between those who supported the “newness” of combining classical and popular influences and those who found this insidious and degrading (really, using not one but two bandoneons?), Piazzolla won a scholarship which allowed him to travel to Paris to study with Boulanger (see photo, above).

Piazzolla played through a number of his “classically-inspired” pieces for his new teacher with little response. It wasn't till he started playing one of his tangos – Triunfal – that she reacted: “This,” she said, “is the real Piazzolla!” Dismissing the pile of “serious” works, she said “this” was what he should focus his efforts on. And you could say, he never looked back. (By the way, imagine if Mozart had waited till he was 33 before “finding his voice”?) 

Primarily, he studied counterpoint with her – it was, according to Carter, what she was most brilliant at – and it would, in fact, become a major feature in the development of his “New Tango” style. It was the synthesis of the “serious” which he'd started to learn with Ginastera, with the “popular” element he'd grown up with and which was suc h an important aspect of his environment.

So here we have another great “What If...?” game: if Piazzolla had stayed with his “serious” side, would as many people today know the name and hum his music if he instead wrote symphonies and operas and string quartets like his mentor Alberto Ginastera? Would his “serious” music have had the same sincerity his tangos have?

Following his stay in Paris, Piazzolla returned to Buenos Aires in 1955 and formed another band, expanding the traditional tango ensemble of two bandoneóns, two violins, bass and piano, by adding a cello and electric guitar. For his Octeto he composed his “Tango Ballet” in 1956 which was later transcribed for full orchestra as well as for string quartet.

Whether intended to be danced or not – and of course, who could resist dancing mentally while listening to a tango? – the program behind the music was meant to evoke six scenes, from an introduction leading to an encounter in the street – then “forgetfulness” – cabaret – solitude – before ending up back in the street.

Considering when it was composed, “Tango Ballet” then is one of the earliest works Piazzolla wrote after studying in Paris, clearly taking Boulanger's advice to heart.

It's always intrigued me how naturally so many of Piazzolla's compositions work for string quartet and yet they were not originally written for a string quartet: they're transcriptions (at least, in most cases) of works he originally composed for one or another of his tango bands!

Since the Dalí Quartet is the 2021 Silver Medalist at the inaugural Piazzolla Music Competition, here they are, playing the first and last movements of the “Tango Ballet.”

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While I had difficulty finding an on-line video matching their vitality, here's one that, if nothing else, will show you how Argentinian fire translates to a quartet from Iceland – the Kordo Quartet recorded in Rekjavik in 2021 playing the entire "Tango Ballet":

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Piazzolla, Bandoneon, & Cigarette
The tango itself – as internationally identifiable as “the Viennese Waltz,” once considered a lascivious form of social expression parents should protect their children from – was the product of an urban immigrant culture, mixing European influences with black, native, and Creole elements like Andalucían flamenco, melodies from southern Italy, the Cuban habañera, candombé (especially with its percussion) from African slaves, along with Eastern-European polkas and mazurkas, the Spanish contradanse, and the milónga, the rural song of the Argentine gaucho or cowboy. Into this melting pot, Piazzolla tossed the complexity of European classical traditions and American jazz. He called it nuevo tango.

Reading through a few brief on-line biographical summaries (mostly quoting material from the Wikipedia post), none of them mention the historical backdrop of the Argentina Piazzolla was living in at the time this piece was written, regardless of any direct effect on the music. But while Piazzolla was studying in Paris, the regime of dictator Juan Peron was under siege, ending with a coup in mid-September, 1955, three months after planes of the national air force and navy massacred hundreds of protesters on the Plaza de Mayo in front of the presidential Casa rosada, images that may resonate following the 2nd Anniversary of the January 6th Riot (or Insurrection) at the Washington Capitol and today's news as protesters attack government buildings for similar reasons in the capital of Brazil.

Peron's ouster ushered in years of political unrest and frequent coups and counter-coups, lasting for decades. Perhaps Piazzolla's return to New York City in 1958 was prompted as much by the conditions in his homeland as it was the search for artistic possibilities. While his music began gaining acceptance in Europe and the United States, at home he had become a controversial figure, not just for his “tampering” with a traditional icon like The Tango: liberal segments of Argentine society embraced his musical revolution as a parallel to their own political agenda. Given the government's attitude toward attacking and arresting (and sometimes torturing or killing) protesters, perhaps even a musician was not safe? 

Whether or not we hear this social turmoil in his music – it would be difficult for those of us outside its cultural awareness – it should remind us that, however we may feel about art and toss around terms like “beauty” and “entertainment,” artists do not create in a vacuum, whether they choose to work within their realities or in spite of them. In the long run – regardless of culture and history, whether its catastrophic events like the Napoleonic Wars, two World Wars, or periods of endless unrest in countries like Mexico and Argentina – art somehow manages to survive and transcend the reality it was born into.

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Ginastera, c.1960
Born in Buenos Aires in 1916 of a Spanish father from Catalonia and an Italian mother – incidentally, to clear the record, the composer always preferred the Catalan soft g for his name (g as in George) rather than the Spanish j (as in Juan) – Alberto Ginastera premiered a suite from his folkloric ballet, Panambi, which earned him national recognition at the age of 21. He became involved with a touring American dance company which commissioned a new ballet but the company folded before it could be produced. The Four Dances from Estancia, premiered in 1943 (the ballet, not until ten years later) only solidified his reputation. Unfortunately, a proposed trip to study in America had to be postponed because of World War II. In 1941, he had already been appointed a professor of composition at the National Conservatory in Buenos Aires and also the “chair of music” at the General San Martín Military School. When Juan Perón rose to power in 1945, Ginastera was dismissed from his post for political reasons. Then he and his family moved to the United States where he studied with Copland and some of his music was performed.

It was during this period his music began to undergo a change, from the folk-influenced melodies and rhythms of his earlier works, a style he later called “objective nationalism” creating a nationalist Argentine musical voice, to an increasingly more abstract influence from the “classical music” of modern Europe.

Ginastera began to explore this world outside Argentina in 1948 with his 1st String Quartet. He found inspiration particularly in the works of Bela Bartók (who had died in America in 1945), and now applied these elements into his previous style to create a “Middle Period” style he now called “subjective nationalism.” Simply put, he was creating an internationally recognized style with an Argentinian accent, much as Bartók had gone from quoting folk music to incorporating elements of folk style into the fabric of his original music, in what Bartók called “imaginary folk-music,” particularly in his 3rd, 4th, and 5th String Quartets.

During this period, he'd returned to Argentina and became involved in promoting Argentine composers both at home and abroad with frequent trips to Europe as a musical representative of Argentina. But because of political tensions, he was dismissed again from the directorship at the La Plata Conservatory in 1952 only to be reinstated after Peron's fall from power in 1955 (see above). In 1958, he attended a music festival in Washington DC to hear his 2nd String Quartet premiered to great acclaim by the Juilliard Quartet: his international reputation was now assured.

While Piazzolla left Argentina for New York City in 1958 amidst the social and political deterioration following the coup against Peron, Ginastera, because he spent more time outside the country, was perhaps less affected by these events. But after his opera Bomarzo was premiered with extraordinary success in Washington in 1967, but subsequently banned by the Mayor of Buenos Aires on moral grounds, Ginastera decided to settle elsewhere, first teaching at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire in 1968 before moving to Geneva in 1970 where he remained until his death in 1983.

Ginastera (not so serious) in July, 1968

His music always had a rhythmic drive – often ferocious as you can hear in the Final Dance from Estancia – and he was above all fascinated by instrumental color, preferring to find new colors from combinations of standard instruments rather than using electronics. It was not unusual for his music to move along like a kaleidoscope of "sound-images" though with an underlying core of what constituted Ginastera's own “voice” so a casual listener might not notice the diversity. In other words, subjectivity aside, despite its technical variety, it would sound entirely consistent.

Keeping in mind that “dissonance” is technically a sound that implies the need for resolution – as a Dominant 7th Chord in Haydn is still technically a dissonance needing to resolve to a tonic chord – Ginastera's use of dissonance is often more a matter of color or rhythm (in a sense) than just the idea of creating harsh sounds. You can hear this in the aggressive opening of the 1st Quartet - which in the process generates a lot of the music's drive.

Like Bartók's 4th and 5th Quartets, Ginastera built his 2nd Quartet – almost as if it were an homage – on a similar arch form. Many of the rhythmic motives and the sense of contrast also bear the stamp of Bartók. Opening with a wild and violently rhythmic opening movement, followed by a lyrical slow movement with prominent solos from each instrument, the middle of this arch is a fantastical “night-piece” also in the manner of Bartók's “night-music” movements, but rather than whispering winds, insect noises and sometimes even the frogs of Bartók's uncle's farm, all background to the imagination's response to night's uncertainty, Ginastera's builds more on the darker side of fantasy, dealing perhaps with magical incantations and folkloric rituals.

Like Bartók, it is also full of unusual playing techniques, including fingernail pizzicatos, pizzicato glissandos, those loud “snap” pizzicatos (let's hope no strings are broken tonight) usually called “Bartók Pizzes,” as well as playing with the bow practically on the bridge to create that eerie hollow, almost metallic sound, and tapping the strings with the wooden back of the bow. As this night-music had been a standard part of Bartók's style, Ginastera's sense of magic was very much a part of his. From there, we work our way back out of the arch's keystone with a parallel slow movement that also employs solo passages before returning to the violent rhythmic, indeed frantic propulsion ending the piece with a huge, unfettered yelp.

Here is a performance by Cuarteto Latinoamericano of the 2nd String Quartet by Alberto Ginastera (complete with score):

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- Dick Strawser


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