For the last four or five years, I’ve been doing presentations on music by Latin American classical composers in several venues in the US. The audience for these presentations has usually been teachers interested in teaching Latin American music in their private studios, or pianists who want to explore it. This blog is, in fact, a product of my presentations.
I remember clearly the first time I presented this material in front of a group of eager teachers in southern Ohio. For one long hour, I talked about and played pieces by most of the luminaries of Latin American classical music: Ginastera, Villa-Lobos, Ponce, Chavez, Castro… At the end of my presentation, one of the teachers raised her hand and asked: “can you now play a ‘real’ tango, like some Piazzolla, please?” I was embarrassed to admit that I did not have any Piazzolla in my presentation at that point! In fact, including Piazzolla in my repertoire had not crossed my mind until then. You may ask why I had totally ignored a composer who invariably causes a deep impression in classically- and non-classically-trained listeners? A composer who is equally admired and played by tango and jazz musicians, and more recently, cross-over classical performers such as Barenboim, Gidon Kremer and Yo-Yo Ma? After some reflection I realized my omission had to do with my Argentine classical training. You see, Piazzolla, in the 1980s, was not highly regarded in Argentine classical music conservatories. He had two “shortcomings”: first, he was Argentine (conservatories there tended to over-value the three German “Bs” and Chopin, and to devalue most things written on this side of the Atlantic, with some notable exceptions); second, he was a tango musician, for God’s sake, a TANGO musician! Tango, as in “POPULAR MUSIC’s tango,” not worthy of the classical stage. Well, this lady made me realize that maybe I was wrong. I quickly started looking for some good Piazzolla to add to my presentations and my concerts. People loved it.
The main problem that faces classically trained pianists when tackling Piazzolla’s music is that the printed versions of the pieces are arrangements or transcriptions of works that existed first as “sound” for a very particular ensemble of instruments, flexible in their genesis just like jazz. If you hear Piazzolla’s recordings you’ll realize that, like jazz, the pieces owe much to the spurt of the moment, the musicians who play them, and the place where they are played. This means that some of the arrangements you can buy nowadays sound somewhat awkward and contrived. Some are too “thin” and unconvincing, while others are just plain impossible to play, since they include many layers of sound, for which you would need 3 or more hands. For some of these pieces you need to use common sense and intuition to make them work at the piano.
There are some great Piazzolla piano pieces at the intermediate and early advanced levels. Some of these pieces include:
- The Four Seasons of Buenos Aires (Cuatro Estaciones PorteÃ±as), especially the rhythmic and captivating “Verano PorteÃ±o,” or Summer of Buenos Aires, which works very well with some minimal tinkering (listen to my performance below)
- The set Angel, which includes Milonga del Angel, a gorgeous slow milonga at the intermediate level that will enthrall students and audiences alike with its sophisticated harmonies and slow, hypnotic melodies
- Retrato de Alfredo Gobbi, or Portrait of Alfredo Gobbi, a lesser known, fantasy-like tango with many mood changes and daring harmonies
- Adios Nonino, a fast and exciting classic tango
There are MANY other sets that I encourage you to explore.
You can hear an excerpt of my live performance of “Verano PorteÃ±o” (Summer of Buenos Aires) here: veranoexcerpt.mp3. Also watch me play Milonga del Angel (apologies for the wrong notes!)
Buy any of these tangos on SheetMusicPlus.com by clicking at these links:
Watch Piazzolla himself playing “Milonga del Angel” at this YouTube video: