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MITSO Takes on Bold Fusion of Tango

MITSO and 676 Nuevotango Perform Exhilarating Music

By Bogdan Fedeles

Staff writer

MIT Symphony Orchestra, with 676 Nuevotango

Conducted by Dante Anzolini

Kresge Auditorium

March 12, 8 p.m.

Although the first MITSO concert of 2004 was over two and a half hours long, the exuberance of the second half, which featured works by Piazzolla, still captivated and thoroughly entertained the numerous audience. The concert featured the Tango group, 676 Nuevotango, but had a less sparkling first half comprised of works by BartÓk and Gershwin.

The concert opened with BartÓk’s “Hungarian Pictures,” which is little more than a collection of piano pieces adapted for orchestra, written perhaps more to satisfy a certain publisher than a true creative impulse. As a consequence, even when receiving a decent performance, the piece comes out unyielding and unimpressive. MITSO took its best shot at this work, featuring an excellent winds section that delivered the folksy tunes present in the piece. Given the thin orchestration, the ensemble sonority was crisp and precise, without effort.

Next came Gershwin’s “Porgy and Bess Suite,” also not an original orchestral piece, but instead an arrangement by Morton Gould of Gershwin’s famous opera “Porgy and Bess.” Gould has arranged the most memorable arias from the opera into this suite, in an attempt to promote Gershwin’s opera and music in general. While this is noteworthy, the piece as a whole fails to impress more than as skilled patchwork. However, Gershwin’s music, in each individual instance, remains a delight and MITSO focused mostly on presenting the savor of each episode. The especially solicited brass department made a strong impression, and the slower, lyrical sections came out intense and heartfelt, although lacking some sense of direction.

After the intermission, the music moved into the realm of the tango and became significantly more exciting. Back to the beginnings of the 20th century, in most parts of the world, the tango was ignorantly regarded mostly as a social dance, very popular in Latin America and set to catchy, rhythmic music. However, for the South Americans, the tango was a way of life, an attitude with tremendous expressive potential that combined music and dance in utmost artistic ways.

One of the most famous tango creators, a native of Argentina, Astor Piazzolla was determined to take the tango to a whole new artistic level -- from a mere popular song, to an art form among the light classics. After all, many popular dances (minuet, gigue, waltz, mazurka) attained unprecedented artistic significance in Europe during the classical and romantic eras, given the inspiration and the right promoting forces. Piazzolla’s intentions about the tango are at least as bold as those of the classics, and his music is a vivid testimony of his vision.

The special guest of the evening was the Tango group, 676 Nuevotango (“the new tango”), a group very familiar with the music of Astor Piazzolla. The extreme background diversity of the musicians (almost each one originates from a different country) gives a special color to the music they play and shows the universal nature of the tango. The Nuevotango quintet (Daniel Zisman (violin), Michael Zisman (bandoneon), Richard Pizzorno (piano), Sandro Schneebeli (guitar) and Giorgos Antoniou (double bass)) also integrated seamlessly into the bigger orchestra, conducted enthusiastically by Dante Anzolini, a native of Argentina himself.

The first Piazzolla work performed was “Onda 9,” a set of pieces written for a nine-player ensemble. The extended improvisational passages on the piano were impressive, setting the stage for the whole string section and the others players who came in with melodic gestures on unmistakable tango rhythms. The piece has a rather classical shape, featuring a middle more lyrical section flanked by a faster proposition and its reprise.

The high point of the program came with “Adios Nonino,” perhaps Piazzolla’s single most famous work. The composer wrote this tormenting elegy shortly after the untimely death of his father, and it comes as a continuation of “Nonino,” a bouncy tango dedicated to his father. The tune of the piece is divine inspiration, something that the composer considered a once-in-a-lifetime experience. The emotional intensity of the piece is indeed heart-wrenching, depicting the deepest and the purest feelings of sorrow, grief, but also acceptance and an eternal admiration and love.

The extended version performed also served as a “piece de resistance” for the group, each of the players having an ample opportunity for solo improvisation. In the beginning, the double bass solo sets the mood with lamenting slides and fast pizzicato. Then, the violin starts the tune accompanied only by the guitar. Eventually, after a guitar solo, the whole orchestra joins, adding the tango rhythmic pulse. Later on, the bandoneon is featured solo, showcasing the remarkable technical and expressive possibilities of this unusual instrument, very dear to Piazzolla.

It is hard to describe the audience enthusiasm that “Adios Nonino” elicited; I can only say that it was like something I have rarely seen at a MITSO concert. The purity of expression and the directness of the music moved probably even the most skeptical listeners.

The last work of the program was “Concierto de Nacar,” which constitutes Piazzolla’s version of the baroque concerto grosso, here adapted for the tango group and the orchestra. “Concierto” departs further from the simple tango, the piece having three defined movements, of contrasting characters and more developed textures polyphonic work. 676 Nuevotango, together with MITSO, delivered an intense and musical performance. The ensemble work shown in this piece was especially remarkable, the interplay between the soloists and the whole orchestra being imaginative and at times, spectacular.

Given the wild success of Piazzolla’s music, the audience could not have left without encores, and 676 Nuevotango gladly offered no less than two, first part of “Adios Nonino” and second, a different Piazzolla piece for the quintet only. More overwhelming ovation and applause ensued, a clear sign that the lively spirit of tango had found significant artistic resonance in the apparently torpid realms of MIT.