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PROGRAM NOTES: Tango Song and Dance

by Augustin Hadelich


Over the years, Augustin and I have had a great time putting together recital programs that we thought were both coherent and intriguing. We recently decided it was time for something new and bold!

Among the many works for violin and piano that we were considering, André Previn’s three-movement work Tango Song and Dance (written in 1997 for Anne-Sophie Mutter) jumped out at us. It’s a break from the usual: it’s not a sonata; it’s American; it swings —we loved it immediately! Augustin started to program it in some recitals with pianist Joyce Yang, and audiences love it too!

An interesting factor is that every movement is approximately five minutes long — three balanced movements, each of which stands quite well on its own. Having been drawn to the concept that classical music must, in order to survive, introduce visual elements into its presentation, I began to SEE these three movements as separated pillars of a recital program. We would use lighting and a non-verbal narrative that would thread through various pieces and make the concert a coherent entity.

Since the music is the most important element of Tango Song and Dance, we spent many hours finding the right music for Previn’s pillars to frame. When they finally fell into place, I called the director Ed Berkeley, asking him to create the narrative and find an excellent lighting director.
- Patricia Handy, Artistic Advisor

About Tango Song and Dance:

As with any conceptually solid program, various connections and resonances between the pieces continued to arise as Patricia and I worked on putting this program together, and several possibilities for the narrative emerged. In Ed Berkeley’s words, “The first step is to study the emotional connections between and among the instrumental lines in each work. Where do the instruments argue? Where do they agree? Where do they flirt? Where seduce? Where do they celebrate, where despair?” It all starts with Previn’s Tango. Ed elaborates: “The violin and piano in Previn’s Tango seem to be having an emotional problem connecting with each other. There is a struggle. This is the core of the evening, the starting point that cries for resolution.”

It is then that guitarist Pablo Villegas appears playing Rodrigo’s Invocation and Dance, drawing me into his own mysterious world. I join him in five Falla songs, after which the piano explodes jealously in Ginastera’s Danzas Argentinas. Ed feels that “private thoughts are explored in the solo works until a synthesis is found among the violin, piano and guitar”. At the end, in Villa-Lobos’s gorgeous Bachianas Brasileiras No. 5, we finally all play together. It’s a truly beautiful way to end both the narrative and the musical program!

To reinforce the non-verbal narrative, Ed asked lighting designer Kate Ashton to create lighting that would further communicate the story. Ed asked that “spaces become smaller and larger to connect and separate the musicians; color and image change to imply the passage of time and further explore the emotional voice of each instrument.” The lighting is atmospheric, reinforcing the character and emotional message of each work. In order that the musical content of the recital remain dominant, we decided not to use motion graphics. We want the audience to reflect upon where the pieces take them, and to make their own connections. We hope that you will have as much fun with this music as we do!

About the Music:

André Previn (born 1929) wrote Tango Song and Dance for violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter. This three-movement work will frame tonight’s program, with the first movement, Tango, played at the start of the concert; the second, Song, at the beginning of the second half; and the third, Dance, at the end. Tango is full of theatrical flair. In Previn’s own words: “At the time, the tango revival craze had not yet been born, and so the first movement with its purposeful and exaggerated tango clichés was still possible. The clustered harmonies are not terribly far removed from the sound the traditional accordion makes, and the whole movement should be full of self-conscious poses”. Below the surface, however, there is a troubled and uneasy feeling. Song is poignant and extremely sentimental. The piano accompaniment’s textures and harmonies evoke sad piano bar music, over which the violinist sings wistfully. The finale, Dance, is a wild ride. It is here that the jazz influence is felt most strongly. That said, it would be rather hard to dance to since Previn likes to make the bars trip over themselves by leaving out the final eighth note. Much of the piano playing sounds like boogie woogie patterns played on a broken piano: lots of “wrong” and “missed” notes and general mayhem! Above all this, the violin plays jazz riffs intermingled with more percussive, atonal passages. Overall, the mood of the movement is frenzied and jubilant.

Joaquín Rodrigo (1901-1999) is one of Spain’s most celebrated composers, particularly famous for his works for guitar. His rhapsodic solo guitar work Invocación y danza is an homage to the great Spanish composer Manuel de Falla, and it contains subtle quotes of Falla works such as the Three-Cornered Hat, and El amor brujo, although the quotes are disguised in such a way as to be barely recognizable.

Manuel de Falla (1876-1946) wrote his Siete canciones populares españolas originally for voice and piano. The work was first transcribed for violin and piano by Paul Kochanski in the early 20th century. The guitar is a very prominent instrument in Spanish music, and many of the folk forms, for example the jota, would originally have been sung with guitar accompaniment. In his piano accompaniments, Falla is often trying to imitate the sounds of the guitar. We have chosen five of Falla’s original seven songs. El paño moruno is a lament about a piece of Moorish cloth that has been stained and will now fetch only a low price at the market. The overly dramatic tone (with many cries of Ay! Ay!) is enigmatic. Could the stained cloth be a symbol of lost innocence? Asturiana is an extremely mournful song. The weeping protagonist seeks consolation near a green pine. Instead of giving comfort, the pine tree starts weeping as well. Jota is a passionate song about two lovers. Since they are not seen talking to one another, people around them don’t think they love each other—but anyone who looks into their hearts knows the truth. The next song, Nana, is a tranquil lullaby. The Moorish influence is most clearly heard in this song. Occupying Spain from 711 until 1492, the Moors left a strong mark on Spanish music and architecture, in addition to many other areas of their culture. The cycle ends with Polo, a type of flamenco. The singer, in great despair, is cursing love and fate.

Alberto Ginastera (1916-1983) wrote his Danzas Argentinas Op. 2 in 1937. The first of the three dances, Danza del viejo boyero (Dance of the Old Herdsman) is a quirky piece full of sudden dissonances which are caused by the left hand playing only black keys and the right hand playing only white ones. Danza de la moza donosa (Dance of the Beautiful Maiden) is a melancholic, sensual piece full of sighing, chromatic gestures. The final movement, Danza del gaucho matrero (Dance of the Arrogant Cowboy) is highly virtuosic and at turns wild, savage, angry and jubilant.

Roland Dyens (born 1955) is a French guitarist, composer, arranger and improviser, and Tango en Skaï is his most famous original composition. The work is a light-hearted homage to Argentinian tango. “Skaï” is a French slang term for imitation leather, and is a reference to the distinctive leather outfits of the Gauchos (cowboys) of Argentina.

Originally written for flute and guitar (the earliest tango instrumentation), the four movements of Histoire du Tango by Ástor Piazzolla (1921-1992) retrace the history of Argentine tango throughout the 20th century: The first movement, titled Bordel 1900, is written in the fast and lively style of the first tangos - played and danced in the bordellos of Buenos Aires starting around 1882. Café 1930 strikes a very different note. Tango has evolved to become slower, more melancholic, and no longer just for dancing. People are now listening to tango orchestras, and violins are featured for the first time. By the time we reach Nightclub 1960, the tango has been enriched by the influence of bossa nova from Brazil. This is the passionate, rambunctious style of the tango that made Piazzolla world-famous. Finally, in Concert d’aujourd’hui, the tango has arrived in the concert hall. This movement showcases Piazzolla’s unique compositional style, with influences from great 20th century composers such as Bartók and Stravinsky. Having started out in seedy red-light districts and survived eras when it was outlawed in Argentina, the tango is now being celebrated in the most illustrious concert halls throughout the world.

In 1923 the Belgian virtuoso Eugène Ysaÿe (1858-1931) was nearing the end of his career. Inspired by Bach’s six sonatas and partitas (which form the core of the solo violin repertoire) he set out to write six of his own solo sonatas, each dedicated to another great violinist of his time. After dedicating the first five to Joseph Szigeti, Jacques Thibaud, George Enescu, Fritz Kreisler and Mathieu Crickboom, he dedicated the sixth and final sonata to Manuel Quiroga, one of the greatest Spanish violinists of the 20th century. Perhaps Ysaÿe’s most technically challenging sonata, it is cast in one single rhapsodic movement and is very much an homage to Spanish music and to Quiroga’s passionate and dramatic playing style. After many displays of virtuosity and improvisatory detours, the music comes to a stop, and a charming and seductive habanera dance emerges from the silence. After the dramatic opening returns, the fireworks quickly build towards a heroic ending.

When Heitor Villa-Lobos (1887-1959) wrote his nine Bachianas Brasileiras, he intended them primarily as homages to Bach. His music often shows the strong influence of Brazilian folk music, and in these pieces, the Brazilian rhythms and idioms are combined with counterpoint and harmony directly inspired by Bach’s music. To conclude tonight’s program, we will perform the first movement, Aria, from the Bachianas Brasileiras No. 5, undoubtedly the most famous of this cycle. The arrangement for violin, guitar and piano has been composed by Stefan Malzew.