in: Reviews

February 22, 2011

Expressive Tangos from Chamber Orchestra of Boston

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For a Valentine’s program a year ago, David Feltner offered an evening of tango music (including dance) with his Chamber Orchestra of Boston — a very appropriate choice for the season, given tango’s long association with expressions of passion. Inspired by its success, he presented a new tango program at First Church in Boston for the Valentine’s Day weekend this year, again featuring dancers Julie Leven and Tom Jenkins in a half-dozen of the movements performed. The presence of a video clip from last year’s concert on the orchestra’s website no doubt helped attract a still larger audience, and a very enthusiastic one.

The qualities that made last year’s concert so enjoyable were once again in evidence: expressive playing from the modest-sized orchestra (eleven players on this occasion — three each of first and second violins, two each of violas and cellos, and a single double bass), a fascinating and varied program featuring tangos old and new, plus some non-tango material, and the visual element of dance in the display tango style, very different from the social dance many of us learned in our youth — and far more challenging.

As was the case last year, Feltner commissioned or located recent tangos that enrich the repertory above and beyond the classics of composers like Astor Piazzolla; two of these new works were by local composers. Scott Wheeler’s Touch and Go was recomposed for this program from an earlier piano trio version. It is a brief, marvelously light-textured score making what the composer calls “a line drawing of a tango,” using frequent pizzicatos to give it a bounce that evidently suggested the title.

John McDonald’s Three for Strings was a series of three short movements of varying character, reworked from earlier compositions. All three, like Wheeler’s work, are relatively quiet and subdued, even the liveliest of the three, the “obsessive little etude” “Six Times the Same, Six Times”¸ which brings the group to a fairly lively conclusion. These new tangos evoke dark smoky dance halls, perhaps in America rather than Argentina.

A third new work, Yet Another Tango, by Katrina Wreede, the San Francisco-based violist of the Turtle Island String Quartet, has gone through several transformations, at different lengths (one involving improvisational sections), for various scorings, starting with a version including bandoneon (Astor Piazzolla’s instrument), later adapted with according instead. The new version performed here is a transcription for string orchestra. Of the three new tangos on the program, it moved farthest in mood from the slow, sensuous tango to a faster tempo, implying a somewhat more athletic version of the dance.

The traditional tango was represented, naturally, by Astor Piazzolla, whose Oblivion — probably his best-known piece — closed the first half, and whose Tango Ballet, in six movements, ended the concert. Feltner had included two of the movements from the Tango Ballet in the 2010 program, but this concert offered the opportunity to hear the entire work, containing five different sections (with the liveliest of them all, La Calle, repeated at the end to close the score, and the program with a vigorous tango).

In between the various tangos, the Chamber Orchestra of Boston played other works for string orchestra. Edvard Grieg’s Two Elegiac Melodies (“Heart Wounds” and “The Last Spring,” both derived by Grieg from his own songs) was the more familiar of these selections. Neither movement is in any sense a tango, but Julie Leven and Tom Perkins danced to them as a way of showing that the display tango does not require the characteristic dotted rhythm to move expressively and appropriately with a slow, sensuous, lyrical movement.

The other non-tango work was a rarely heard composition by Dvorák, one of the several versions of his Cypresses. As a young man, he composed a cycle of eighteen love songs, most of which remained unpublished. Eight of them he later reworked and published as Love Songs, Op. 83. Finally, Dvorák rewrote twelve of the original songs — including the eight published in Op.83 — for string quartet. These twelve, rarely heard short numbers were performed, six before intermission, and six after.  Each one was a sweet, lovely item, with some exquisite solo playing by concertmaster Heidi Braun-Hill, violist Joan Ellersick, and cellist Mark Simcox. In each case a title hints — just barely — at the content of the missing song text. Yet, despite being assured by the program notes that “There is great diversity in tempo, mood, and instrumental texture” in these twelve pieces, they all felt to be about the same — undeniably attractive, melodious, richly harmonized and beautifully performed though they were. A dozen such pieces seems a bit too much for a single listening. I really wonder if Dvorák ever thought of them as a single work, to be played all in a row?

But this is perhaps looking a gift horse in the mouth quite unnecessarily. Still, compared to last year’s program, the 2011 tango program, as attractive and beautifully played as it was, would have benefitted from just a little more variety in tempo and energy levels. But for the elegant beauty we received, a round of thanks is richly deserved.

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.

1 Comment

  1. CONGRATULATIONS & BRAVO … Great job to David and COB performers and dancers !!! Nice write-up from Steven !!!

    -Kevin M. McCobb, AIA

    Comment by Kevin M. McCobb, AIA — February 22, 2011 at 8:27 pm

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