A hot, humid night with the audience sweating behind their masks like Rafa Nadal in the fifth set was the perfect setting for the cut and thrust of steamy, sexy tangos and the launch of the 2022 ACO season.
Classical accordion maestro James Crabb traces the dance’s origins from the brothels and racetracks of Buenos Aires to the salons of Paris and the clubs of New York in this vibrant tribute to Astor Piazzolla, the creator of nuevo tango. and of a world of angels and demons, here suitably performed in the packed City Recital Hall at Angel Place.
Along the way, Crabb, seated center stage and directing from behind his shiny black piano accordion – a burly cousin of the Argentine’s wheezy bandoneon – greeted Piazzolla violinist Antonio Agri in a superb duet with Richard Tognetti , and Franco-Argentinian singer and heartthrob Carlos Gardel, whose hit By Una Cabeza (By A Head), in which a gambling addict compares his love of horses to his penchant for women, evokes a certain old-world charm.
Piazzolla’s love of Baroque music was recognized with Crabb playing an understated continuo role in Handel’s Concerto Grosso Op. 6 No 1 – here given a lively Percy Grainger-like treatment by Tognetti and his string players in the opening movement.
Raised in New York before settling in his ancestral homeland, the young composer wanted to broaden his musical horizons, studied Bach, Bartok and Stravinsky and received composition and counterpoint advice from Nadia Boulanger in Paris.
Heitor Villa-Lobos is another South American who learned scores from Bach, and the orchestra gave a superb rendition of his Bachianas Brasileiras No 9, with its serene air Prelude and a pastoral folky Fugue it wouldn’t have seemed out of place in a work by Ralph Vaughan Williams.
Piazzolla’s lasting influence on contemporary composers is evident in Elene Kats-Chernin Couple, a work for accordion and orchestra commissioned by the ACO in 2002, which she wrote while her car’s gearbox was hurting her. From the boogie-driving piano bassline to the stabbing, sliding strings, it was a rollercoaster ride that brought the first half to a high-octane conclusion.
Continuing the South American theme, the second part of the program included the Australian premiere of Coqueteos by Gabriela Lena Frank Leyendas – An Andean walka work in which the multiracial Latina composer visits her Peruvian ancestry and how mixed cultures should be able to coexist.
But the two highlights of the show were the two Piazzolla masterpieces that ended the program: the always popular Libertangowhich has been played in just about every instrumental setup imaginable, and Crabb’s own arrangement titled Angels and Demons Suite – four contrasting works of the slow, sensual Angel Milongawritten for a short film on the poet Jorge Louis Borges, with a dynamic fugue The Death of the Angel.
Crabb gave Vayamos al Diablo, with its low-string Dies Irae figures, Stefan Cassomenos’ dizzying piano and whipping crack a suitably Mephistophelian cast with a devilish grin and laugh at the end. The beautiful Diablo Romance was intended to woo, but listeners were urged to read the terms and conditions.
Crabb and Co weren’t going to be allowed to leave the stage without an encore and there was only one track that could do – OversightPiazzolla’s most beautiful tango.
Playing in Sydney, Melbourne, Canberra, Adelaide and Brisbane, it’s a show not to be missed.
The Australian Chamber Orchestra Piazzalla The tour runs until February 14, with concerts in Sydney, Canberra, Melbourne, Adelaide and Brisbane.