PIAZZOLLA: Melodia—Libertango, Two Tangos,arranged for Violin and Orchestra by Jeremy Cohen

Astor Piazzolla was born in Mar del Plata, Argentina, on March 11, 1921, and died in Buenos Aires on July 4, 1992. Melodia dates from 1992, the Libertango from 1973. Violinist Jeremy Cohen made these arrangements for violin and string orchestra for these performances, also composing a link between the two works in the form of a cadenza for solo violin. The first and only performances of this Melodia—Libertango arrangement were in February 2007, led by Alexander Barantschik and featuring Seth Asarnow on the bandoneón. Performance time: about thirteen minutes.

Until recently, Latin America was only sporadically represented on concert programs in the United States. In fact, Spain and Portugal left an extraordinary musical legacy in their colonies, and the revival of the sacred music that was heard in the great cathedrals and more modest parish churches of Latin America from the sixteenth through the nineteenth centuries has been one of the most ravishing ear-opening experiences of the past decade or so.

Nonetheless, a secular repertory was slower to develop in Latin America, where non-ecclesiastical instrumental music tended to remain in the realm of folkloric traditions. The great names of Latin American concert music are limited to the twentieth century, but the contribution of these figures, so far from the European mainstream, has been substantial. As we begin to gain a more steady acquaintance with the works of such composers as Heitor Villa-Lobos (of Brazil), Alberto Ginastera and Astor Piazzolla (of Argentina), or Carlos Chávez and Silvestre Revueltas (of Mexico), we begin to understand that Latin American concert repertory has its share of classics. And the generations that followed those figures--not a single Latin American nation today lacks worthy composers--ensure that future masterpieces will continue to emerge.

Of all Latin American composers, the most widely performed today is surely Astor Piazzolla, who has achieved something resembling pop status. Born in Argentina, he grew up in New York City, where his family moved in 1924; there, he learned to play the bandoneón, a sort of accordion whose timbre instantly evokes the Argentine tango. (In deference to his American upbringing, he preferred that his surname reflect an Americanized pronunciation, with the double-“l” sounded as the English letter “l,” rather than with the Spanish or Argentine pronunciation as a “y” or “zh” sound.)

Returning to his native country at the age of sixteen, Piazzolla established himself as a working musician and performed with many popular ensembles before forming his own tango orchestra, the Orquesta del 46, in 1946. In that year he wrote his first tango, the genre in which he would make an important mark as a composer. He disbanded the ensemble in 1950, the better to dedicate his time to composing. As early as 1953 he produced his first works for symphonic forces. The following year he received a grant from the French Government to travel to Paris, where he studied with Nadia Boulanger, who urged him to develop his language as a composer on a foundation of distinctly Argentine sound. “Up to then,” he recalled, “I had composed symphonies, chamber music, string quartets; but when Nadia Boulanger analyzed my music, she said she could find nowhere any Piazzolla. She could find Ravel and Stravinsky, also Béla Bartók and Hindemith--but never Piazzolla. . . . Nadia made me play a tango to her and then she said, ‘You idiot! That is the real Piazzolla!’ So I threw away all the other music and, in 1954, started working on my New Tango.” By 1956 he began presenting his new, hybrid tangos in concert. On his return to Argentina he formed another ensemble, the Octeto de Buenos Aires, the first of several chamber ensembles that would serve as a sort of laboratory for his continuing experiments in developing the tango as a genre of contemporary music.

The tango that he inherited was an overtly sexy dance born in the back alleys and brothels of Buenos Aires. Piazzolla injected a sense of modernity into the genre, so transforming it that his music, and that of his colleagues and followers, is today referred to as “the new tango,” to distinguish it from the classic dance form. While the classic tango remains recognizable as the root of Piazzolla’s music, his pieces also reflect aspects of jazz and of classical developments that trace their ancestry to Stravinsky. Piazzolla’s “new tangos” met great resistance from tango traditionalists, most of whom dismissed them outright; indeed, he viewed his compositions as essentially works of classical chamber music. It is in that spirit that they suddenly began to be embraced in the mid-1990s by a number of distinguished classical musicians, including the violinist Gidon Kremer, the cellists Yo-Yo Ma and Carter Brey, and the pianists Emanuel Ax and Christopher O’Riley.

The Melodia we hear at these concerts was among Piazzolla’s last works, and he died before giving it a title. The Libertango is from 1973, the year Piazzolla settled in Italy. A heart attack had forced him to scale back his performing, but the move revitalized him and he began a series of recordings. Libertango, composed during his “Italian period,” has become one of his most popular works.

These two tangos have been arranged for violin and string orchestra by Jeremy Cohen, a classically trained violinist (among his teachers were Anne Crowden, Itzhak Perlman, and former San Francisco Symphony violinist Daniel Kobialka) with a deep love of jazz. Cohen is founder of the ViolinJazz Quartet and Quartet San Francisco, and with the latter group (see quartetsanfrancisco.com) he recently recorded Látigo, an album of tangos nominated for Grammys in the Best Classical Crossover and Best Engineered Classical categories. From 1997 until 2006 he served as resident artist and string coordinator at the Henry Mancini Institute at UCLA, and from 2004 to 2006 the Quartet San Francisco was in residence at Mills College. Cohen, currently on the faculty of the Jazzschool in Berkeley, is a former faculty member of the Stanford Jazz Workshop. In addition to the arrangements he has made for these performances, he has composed an original violin cadenza designed as a bridge between the two Piazzolla works.

James M. Keller

More About the Music
Recordings: Constantine Orbelian with the Moscow Chamber Orchestra, and saxophonist Federico Mondelci in arrangements for saxophone and orchestra of Melodia and Libertango (Delos)

Reading: Le Grand Tango: The Life and Music of Astor Piazzolla, by Maria Susana Azzi and Simon Collier (Oxford University Press)  |  Astor Piazzolla: A Memoir, by Natalio Gorin, translated by Fernando Gonzalez—based on interviews with Piazzolla (Amadeus Press)