April 27th Concert Preview – The Distinctive Music of Astor Piazzolla

Astor Piazzolla (1921 – 1992) was a twentieth century composer who combined the elements of traditional tango, jazz and classical music to create a distinctive style that is unmistakable.  

We will get a fair sampling of his beautiful music at the Toot and Twang concert on April 27 when Phil Weaver and Rosa Richardson play two pieces from Piazzolla’s Histoire de Tango, originally written for flute and guitar, and then Libertango arranged for flute and guitar.  As Phil Weaver indicates in his notes for the program, the selections will nicely demonstrate Piazzolla’s energetic and percussive rhythms as well as his emotional and sometimes haunting melodies.

You will not want to miss the concert! It is this Sunday, April 27th at 4:00 p.m. at Messiah Lutheran Church in Madison, AL  The concert is free and a light reception will follow.

Piazzolla was born in Argentina, but then moved at the age of 4 with his Italian immigrant parents to Greenwich Village in New York.  His father bought him a bandoneon that he found in a pawn shop, and Astor began playing a wide range of music inspired by the many recordings that this father played for him.  The bandoneon, Piazzolla’s signature instrument for his entire life, is similar to an accordion.  It was  invented in Germany in the 1800’s by Heinrich Band to serve as a compact organ for religious music in small churches.  German and Italian sailors found it especially convenient to take on board ship, and it migrated with them to South America, where it became an essential part of Argentinian tango ensembles.   
Here is a beautiful video recording of Piazzolla performing the bandoneon in a live 1986 performance in Utrecht. 

Astor’s love for traditional tango and classical music developed rapidly.  He composed his first tango at 11, then started classical piano lessons at 12 in New York with Hungarian Pianist Bela Wilda, a student of Rachmaninoff.  His skill on the bandoneon was recognized by tango composer Carlos Gardel who invited 13 year old Astor to joint him on tour.  Fortunately his father did not grant him permission to leave home, since Gardel and his group were killed in a plane crash soon afterwards.  Piazzolla later joked that if his father had not been so wise, he would be playing harp, instead of the bandoneon. 

Piazzola lived in New York and Italy with his family until at 17 when he moved to Buenos Aires where he made a living playing bandoneon in tango orchestras.  At this time he met Artur Rubenstein who encouraged him to study with the Argentinian composer Ginastera.  Piazzolla continued to perform and arrange for tango orchestras through the 1940’s and early 1950’s, when he decided to give up tango and began studying Stravinsky, Bartok and Ravel.  It was over the next few years that Piazzolla began to develop a distinct style of his own.  In 1953 he won the Savitsky composition award in Buenos Aires after a performance of his work for bandoneon and orchestra, an unusual work that led to fighting in the audience.  The award included a grant to study in Paris with Nadia Boulanger, who immediately realized his talent and encouraged him to never leave the tango.

Back in Argentina Piazzola continued to compose by working with small groups, quintets and octets, and composing essentially instrumental tangos that combined traditional elements of the tango with jazz and chamber music.  This he called the Nuevo Tango.  It continued to be too avante guarde for Argentina, but became more widely appreciated in Europe and North America.

Over the next 30 years he traveled with a number of small groups that he organized and conducted to showcase his music, including Conjunto 9, the first Quintet (1960), Conjunto Electronico, and the second Quintet (1978).  Many recordings were made during this time, including the famous recording with his Quintet at the Montreal International Jazz Festival in 1984 and the New York Central Park concert in 1987 with vibraphonist Gary Burton.  The Utrect video from 1986 is with the Nuevo Tango Quintet, including some beautiful playing by violinist Fernando Suarez Paz, first violinist for the Buenos Aires Philharmonic. 

Piazzolla wrote on the order of 3000 pieces.  His music has been embraced by a large number of musicians, ranging from jazz artists such as Al Dimeola to classical performers including Gidon Kremer.  The impeccable technique of Kremer and his friends in his “Hommage a Piazzolla” CD is a real treat. 

When a six-year old girl was once asked “How do you like this music?”  she responded “This music comes from angels”.  Who could ask for more?

“Anything that interrupts music, I hate.”  – Astor Piazzolla between songs at the Central Park Concert.  

Submitted by John Shriver for Music at Messiah Classical Concert Series

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