Chamber Orchestra Evokes Intensity, Lushness of Tango
By Richard Scheinin
Article Launched: 08/29/2007 01:32:35 AM PDT
Conductor Barbara Day Turner touches on tango from time to time. It's a natural for her. She's married to an Argentinian, travels to Buenos Aires with some regularity and clearly is inspired by the city's signature music. Audiences love the stuff, too.
No surprise then that Day Turner and the San Jose Chamber Orchestra began their 2007-08 season with a nearly sold-out, tango-infused program Sunday at Le Petit Trianon.
The yearning sound of the bandonéon, the button-and-bellows squeezebox (a cousin of the accordion) that pretty much defines tango, was all over the concert's festive second half. So was the harp, not so familiar in tango orchestras, but sounding lusciously at home in arrangements of works by Astor Piazzolla and Pablo Ziegler.
The program was given an extra boost by two exceptional soloists, harpist Anna Maria Mendieta and bandonéon wiz Seth Asarnow. A Bay Area native who has performed with the San Francisco Symphony and the San Francisco Opera Orchestra, Asarnov often takes the tango on the road, including to Japan with his own trio.
He was the jewel in the program's centerpiece: the world premiere performance of the Concertino for Bandonéon and Strings by Pablo Furman, who is a native of Buenos Aires and head of the music composition program at San Jose State University.
With this piece, commissioned by San Jose Chamber Orchestra, Furman pays tribute to Piazzolla: He was a bandonéon virtuoso who set his instrument at the center of his nuevo tango performances and compositions, which included concertos for the instrument. But Furman's piece, which matches the fire and dignity of tango, goes well beyond homage. It feels like an evocation of collective and personal memory.
Its second movement, in particular, conveys a wistful, lost-in-thought lyricism. Furman's program notes allude to his wanderings through the "tranquil labyrinth of canopied streets" in the very same Buenos Aires neighborhood that once inspired Jorge Luis Borges; the "memories" rise over a throbbing ostinato in the form of arching melodies for bandonéon, cello, viola and violin.
Through all three movements, there was a compressed energy to Asarnow's playing, at once edgy, lyrical and conversational. This sort of easy virtuosity is an illusion, inasmuch as the bandonéon is a wickedly difficult instrument with its double keyboard and myriad buttons. Nearly every one of those buttons produces two different notes, depending on whether the bellows are opening or closing.
Following Asarnow came Mendieta, who, if anything, was even more impressive.
A charismatic player, she ranged through her instrument: exquisite, finger-flicked dustings up and across the strings; or guitar-like strums, crisp and percussive; or rich-blooded low notes or brilliant high ones. She also contributed (along with Ziegler and Michael Touchi) to the arrangements of Piazzolla's "Introducción al Angel" (ballet music about an angel descending on Buenos Aires) and Ziegler's "Milonga" (which recalls Ivan Lins' "Septembro").
This was a crowd-pleasing suite with its sweeping song and Piazzollan counterpoint. The interwoven sound of Mendieta (principal harp with the Sacramento Philharmonic) and the orchestra often was luminous. The effect continued with Piazzolla's "Libertango," which featured both Mendieta and Asarnow as soloists - and found Day Turner actually jumping during one rhythmically charged passage.
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