Echoes of Piazzolla
by Sandor Slomovits
For the past seven years, the Phoenix Ensemble, perhaps Ann Arbor's most versatile musical group, has performed a wide variety of programs, from folk to jazz to classical. Although the personnel of the ensemble change from project to project, two things have remained constant: the core of the group, from its formation to now, has been the extraordinary duo of violinist Gabe Bolkosky and cellist Derek Snyder. And, for the third year in a row, the ensemble is devoting a weekend series of concerts to the music of Astor Piazzolla.
It's been said that Piazzolla did for Argentina's tango what George Gershwin did for American jazz: he moved his nation's popular music from the dance floor to concert halls. Thirteen years after his death, Piazzolla's music transcends boundaries both national and musical. Like Gershwin's, it is everywhere, and played by popular, jazz, and classical musicians alike. Growing out of, and strongly rooted in, the passionate and provocative tanguero tradition, Piazzolla's music also incorporates his extensive classical training and jazz studies. His nuevo tangos, romantic, sensual, and dramatic like the traditional tango, also employ Bach-like fugues and counterpoint, as well as dissonances and harmonic complexities found in Bartók and Stravinsky. Not only that, they often encourage improvisation and really swing! Piazzolla composed over 3,000 pieces, from cello-piano duets and music for small ensembles to symphonic works. Many have been arranged for various instruments, but to truly express the soul of his music you need a bandoneon, the voice of the tango and the instrument on which he performed.
The bandoneon is the Argentinean relative of the piano accordion we associate with polkas, and of the bayan, the button accordion found in some Russian classical music. It is probably harder to play than either, and consequently bandoneonists are not exactly a dime a dozen. In addition, Piazzolla's music is so exacting jazz vibraphonist Gary Burton has said it was the hardest music he had ever played
that even if you find a bandoneonist, he might not be able to handle it. The Phoenix Ensemble has found one equal to the task. Peter Soave is an acknowledged master of both the bayan and the bandoneon, having won numerous international competitions, and is a highly regarded proponent of Piazzolla's music. For this year's concerts at Kerrytown Concert House on Friday and Saturday, March 18 and 19, Soave will join a Phoenix Ensemble octet, comprising violin, cello, flute, piano, bass, electric guitar, and percussion, that closely mirrors the instrumental lineup of groups Piazzolla himself led.
The concerts will feature Derek Snyder's arrangements of some of Piazzolla's most widely recorded pieces, like "Adiós Nonino," the aching elegy he composed after his father's death, and lesser-known works like "Canto de Octubre," which has never been recorded. Sold-out Concert House audiences the past two years have attested both to the enduring power of Piazzolla's music and to the authority with which the Phoenix Ensemble plays it.
[Originally published in March, 2005.]