Inside the Knight Concert Hall, concert goers made their way down the long shallow steps. The sound of our shoes against the wood, together with hushed conversations, resonated gently through the finely tuned auditorium. A wide blue curtain spilled down from the golden dome ceiling, ringed with spotlights and sound baffles, disappearing behind the stage. Dozens of purple accent lights gave the flat blue curtain the illusory texture of water. The small stage, already glowing brightly, contained a Steinway grand piano and a large acoustic bass laying on its side – as if hinting at what was about to take place.
We found our seats and I glanced down at the show program. Tonight we were to hear the music of the great Argentine composer Astor Piazzolla. Piazzolla himself traveled the world during the mid 20th century, thrilling audiences with his own exciting style of music which he dubbed: Nuevo Tango. Piazzolla’s virtuosity as the world’s foremost bandoneon player, along with his lifelong dedication to the study of music, allowed him to bring exciting musical elements from Jazz and Classical music to traditional Tango. A few years after Piazzolla’s death, Quinteto Astor Piazzolla was founded in order to keep the great composer’s work alive for future audiences – a.k.a. all of us.
A rush of energetic applause welled up from the audience. I looked up to see five sharply dressed performers stride out from the wings and take their respective places on stage. The quintet was dressed identically: in starched white shirts, matching suits, and brown shoes – except for pianist Barbara Varassi Pega, whose shoes were bright red. I asked Paola, who was seated next to me, ‘What color would you say those suits are?’ As the audience applause began to die down, the musicians picked up their instruments. Paola said to me, ‘Midnight blue.’
After allowing just a second of silence from the crowd, all five members of Quinteto Astor Piazzolla stepped at once, hard into the slinky groove of Biyuya (a street term for money). This first sinewy tango was adorned with strong rhythmic accents – a feature throughout the show. Double bassist Daniel Falasca slapped his bow down across the bass strings to produce a satisfying clatter sound, almost like a back beat against his regular deep arco jabs. Heavily dissonant clusters of tones jutted out from the piano. Barbara Varassi Pega’s left hand swinging as high as her shoulder before falling down full-force at interesting places both on and around the beat. The band formed a single multi legged mass as they climbed over and around the darkly odd rhythmic figure, gradually ascending in a wide agitated spiral. The sound was something like Monk meets Stravinsky.
Center stage, Pablo Mainetti’s bandoneon bounced on top of the cacophonous rhythm, all the while becoming more lyric, in shades with each go-round. As the piece quickly progressed out of this shocking introduction, the rhythmic syncopations began to converge on a single pulse and the spikier elements folded themselves expertly into a rousing dance rhythm. Just as the sound was approaching full-stomp, the tempo deftly changed to half-time and violinist Serdar Geldymuradov embarked on the first of several show-stealing solos. The other sounds vanished and only soft and sad piano chords rolled underneath the long, soaring, plaintive violin.
As the violin rose up to the snow-capped heights of its register, the bandoneon reemerged echoing the violin melody in fugue-like fashion. Watching Mainettei play his bandoneon, I noticed that all the long expressive notes from the bandoneon were played when the instrument was concertinaed outward – as Mainetti expanded the instrument sideways and air was drawn into it. It was as if the instrument sang by inhaling the sounds. Mainetti’s melodies started to become more and more ornate as the rhythm section slowly began to beat a little harder, as well as ever so slightly quicker. Mainetti rolled the bandoneon effortlessly up and down several octaves in quadruple meter, generating sweeping melodic curves reminiscent of both Bach & Charlie Parker.
The music was beginning to reach its original, energetic tempo when the piano took an energetic and rhythmically accentuated solo. Since its inception in the 1960’s, Piazzolla’s Nuevo Tango has always incorporated improvised solos from members of the quintet. All five members of this evening’s quintet served up solos which demonstrated incredible virtuosity, as well as the ability to move the audience with great musical sensitivity. When Biyuya reached its conclusion the audience erupted in applause.
Over the next hour, Quinteto Astor Piazzolla treated the audience to a dozen more tangos, each one more brilliantly conceived and beautifully realized than the last. Slow steamy ballads like Soledad allowed the guitarist Armando de la Vega to admirably step out. Every selection the quintet played was full of surprises. The quintet played with the precision and harmonic palette of a chamber orchestra, but also with the freedom and dialogue of a jazz ensemble.
The applause from the audience grew with the conclusion of each piece. Toward the end of the set the quintet played a piece called Adios Nonino, where the violin and the bandoneon mirrored each other so closely, and created such a unique texture with their sound, that it became impossible to tell where one instrumental voice ended and the other began. These stunning musical effects endeared the performers even more to the crowd, all of whom stood and applauded until the quintet returned to the stage for an encore of three more tangos.
After the performers finished bowing and walked off stage, the audience began filing out of the hall. I thought to myself how I had heard Piazzolla’s music before many times on CD, but had never seen a live performance like this. The experience definitely brought me so much closer to this amazing music. While it may be a while before Quinteto Astor Piazzolla makes it back to Miami, the Arsht Center has scheduled a diverse line-up of concerts, featuring some of the greatest musical performers from all over the world. Check out their event calendar to stay informed on who is playing and when. arshtcenter.org