in: Reviews

February 21, 2010

Chamber Orchestra of Boston Brings Tangos to the Fore

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It was apparently a videotape of Argentine tango danced by violinist Julie Leven (familiar to local audiences for her many performances with the Handel & Haydn Society and Boston Baroque) that sparked an extraordinarily refreshing program offered by the Chamber Orchestra of Boston under its musical director David Feltner on February 12 at the First Church. According to the program notes, Leven has been “absolutely smitten” with the Argentine tango for almost five years, and she suggested putting some tangos on a concert program. David Feltner ran with the idea and put together an event featuring tangos and some rarely-heard compositions for string orchestra and percussion.

For the tangos, Feltner commissioned two new works in tango style from Robert Edward Smith and Thomas Oboe Lee. He also consulted with pianist Virginia Eskin, who suggested a number of repertory possibilities (including piano pieces that she played on the concert). The resulting list produced a selection of tangos by a wide variety of composers, including works for piano alternating with others for string orchestra. Two varied groups of five items each opened and closed the concert.

Feltner chose two larger works by major symphonic composers to be embedded in the middle, before and after intermission. Though Mendelssohn and Sibelius are familiar figures in our concert life, neither Mendelssohn’s youthful Sinfonia No. 11 nor Sibelius’s Rakastava (The Lovers), Opus 14, is anything like a standard repertory item. Both call for a percussionist to be added to the standard strings of the Chamber Orchestra of Boston. Feltner’s choices were canny programming, since Thomas Oboe Lee’s new work requires a percussionist. The result made for a concert full of surprises all around.

There was also a prominent dance element in the program, provided by Julie Leven and her teacher/dance partner Tom Jenkins. Argentine tango is as different from the social dance taught in America as Julia Child’s boeuf bourguignon is from a Big Mac. Most importantly, in the Argentine dance, the dance is improvised during the performance in the manner of a dramatic narrative involving pursuit, appeal, rejection, flirtation, pleading, hesitancy, and eventually sensuous capitulation. Not all of the pieces on the program were danced (that distinction went mostly to the orchestral performances of Piazzolla) but the improvised narratives heightened the emotional mood of the music.

The program opened with music by the two composers present. First came the première of Robert Edward Smith’s Tango Amoroso in a version for solo piano, played with verve and energy by Virginia Eskin. This proved to be a lively piece that one imagines could easily become a danceable favorite. It was followed by Thomas Oboe Lee’s best-known composition, Morango —Almost a Tango, originally written for the Kronos Quartet but here played with sensuous elegance by the orchestra. Its rounded form, beginning and ending with gentle ostinatos in the upper strings over pizzicato double bass, building in the center section to a more contrapuntal outburst, is very satisfying.

Then came the first of three selections by Astor Piazzolla, the master of “new tango” in the 20th century: Milonga en re, for violin and piano, featuring concertmaster Charles Dimmick, Here, as elsewhere in the program, he brought an elegant and sensuous flair to a number of solo moments. Virginia Eskin performed Odeon by the Brazilian master Ernesto Nazareth, whose large output of popular piano compositions included dozens of tangos (this one probably dating from the mid-1920s, when Nazareth was pianist at the Odeon cinema in Rio de Janeiro). Then came a more surprising, but effective choice: Igor Stravinsky’s 1940 Tango for piano solo, a work calling for dense counterpoint over a continuously syncopated 4/4 (though rarely using the traditional tango rhythm). Stravinsky later arranged it for nineteen wind and string instruments, but here it received a rare performance in the original version.

Felix Mendelssohn’s Sinfonia No. 11 in F major, composed when the young prodigy was just fourteen, is a piece of very talented juvenilia, not yet as extraordinarily brilliant as the Octet written two years later, but a remarkable achievement nonetheless. This substantial work (five movements running about thirty-eight minutes) offers the surprise addition of a triangle for the second movement, based on a Swiss folk song. At the time of composition (1823), the triangle was restricted in European music to “Turkish” effects, as in Mozart’s Abduction from the Seraglio or a passage in the finale of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. The ensemble performed with as lush a lyrical sound as a small ensemble can manage (with at most three players on a part) in the melting Adagio, and was superbly energetic in the so-called Menuetto (something of a Beethovenesque scherzo) and the contrapuntal energy of the fugal close.

Following intermission, Jean Sibelius was represented with a work even less familiar than the Mendelssohn—a reworking for strings and percussion of an early choral work, Rakastava (The Lovers). Sibelius entered the original piece, for unaccompanied male voices, in a competition in 1894, where it received the second prize. He fiddled with it a bit, adding a string orchestra accompaniment and producing a version (unpublished) for mixed voices, but then left it for eighteen years. In 1912, as we was reaching the height of his fame, he took the piece up again for the most radical revision of all—dropping the voice parts and re-orchestrating it for strings alone (plus percussion), rewriting syllabic vocal passages as smooth flowing string lines. The three movements are all essentially lyrical in character, with rather more rhythmic focus in the middle piece. Again, the Chamber Orchestra of Boston gave a very expressive songful performance of this rarity.

The remainder of the program returned to the tango theme. “Encuentro,” from Piazzolla’s Tango Ballet, offered a dark score for a danced tango “encounter.”

Then came what was for me the highlight of the evening—the world première of Thomas Oboe Lee’s Tangata Manu, a vigorously colorful, rhythmically complex score that incorporates elements of salsa, samba, bolero, and tango in a vivacious score that should, if there is any justice, have “legs.” It is a work that I would unhesitatingly recommend to string orchestras (plus percussionist), and one that I hope to hear again soon.

Virginia Eskin reminded us of a rarely-heard side of Samuel Barber with a movement from his piano suite Souvenirs (which he wrote for two pianos and later transcribed for two hands): the delightful, slightly satirical “Hesitation-Tango,” composed at about the time that tango style was finding its way into American popular songs and to Broadway (as in “Whatever Lola Wants” in Damn Yankees). The final Piazzolla selection, “Cabaret,” from his Tango Ballet, was another occasion for a danced narrative in the Argentine tango style.

The concert closed with a varied reprise of its opening. Having heard the piano solo version of Robert Edward Smith’s Tango Amoroso at the start, the audience enjoyed the première of the orchestral version (string orchestra with piano), not only to hear the piece again, but also to revel one final time on a cold winter’s night in the steamy and sultry musical style that emanated from Argentina at the start of the last century.

David Feltner put together a truly captivating program on this occasion, not only doing justice to the tango, but offering just the right amount of contrast in the Mendelssohn and Sibelius works to prevent any possibility of ennui. A few familiar pieces scattered within a program of novelties and rarities, all played with style, energy, and grace, as each demanded, made for one of the most completely satisfying concerts that I have heard this season.

Steven Ledbetter is a free-lance writer and lecturer on music. He got his BA from Pomona College and PhD from NYU in Musicology. He taught at Dartmouth College in the 1970s, then became program annotator at the Boston Symphony Orchestra from 1979 to 1997.

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