The art of Astor Piazzolla comes one’s way more frequently than not in a form of an encore, leaving the listener both enjoying the piece and wondering whether having heard one Piazzolla, one has heard them all. Gisele Ben-Dor led Pro Arte Chamber Orchestra, and tango nuevo specialist Juanjo Mosalini for a thorough exploration of the genre based on two of Mosalini’s own pieces, and a large number of examples by the Argentinian master. Mosalini’s virtuosic bandoneon dominated in all its glory and limitations at Sanders on Sunday.
Two premieres of his own pieces for bandoneon and strings began the concert. First, a good-natured and pleasant tribute to Mosalini’s friend and colleague Tomas Gubitsh, titled Tomá, Tocá took proper advantage of the bright reed accordion’s one-note-at-time expressiveness in long narrative lines. Then Cien Años celebrated the generations of bandoneon players in the composer’s direct lineage, as well as the instrument’s role in birth, and then rebirth of tango. After the promising beginning, many button bellows went silent, as concertmaster Kristina Nilsson’s long, expressive violin solo took complete possession of the stage. The main hero returned, joining the orchestra and recapturing the violin’s theme and spirit. If Mosolini had been making a point that this expandable black box can compete with the violin as the lyrical hero, the argument was rather persuasive.
Piazzolla’s Four Seasons of Buenos Aires had originated with Summer before growing to four separate pieces, first played by the composer’s tango quintet, which, of course, included bandoneon; lately it has really taken wing in a number of arrangements, most famously by Leonid Desyatnikov to a Gidon Kremer commission. Kremer programmed it along with Vivaldi’s Quattro Stagioni, and the arrangement not only quoted the familiar Inverno downpours, but also in general thrived on string textures and perfect articulation of themes. For this performance, Moselini attempted to restore the primacy of the bandoneon, and to this reviewer’s ears, Seasons suffered for that. The instrument’s role as a staccato accompaniment did not play up its best capabilities and became somewhat tiresome. It lost the urgency and some of the intensity of the string arrangements, and became less soulful, even though leaders of string sections of Pro Arte played their respective solos beautifully. I did not catch any Vivaldi’s Winter quotations in Piazzolla’s Summer either. But maybe there was little need: as I look at my weather app now, the temperature in Buenos Aires in the midst of their warm season is lower than it was in Harvard Square during this warm January 12th afternoon. Get a quote from a climate scientist about that.
Though Libertango often unfolds in slow and improvisational buildup that culminated in the catchy theme, yesterday we heard a much more streamlined and uniform take that felt somewhat short of the full range of this crowd pleaser’s expressive potential. Again the bandoneon came across as a bit domineering.
Then came Piazzolla’s magnum opus, the Aconcagua Concerto. Here the harmoniousness between bandoneon and the world gloriously returned. Timpani and percussion, along with a harp and a piano, took the burden off of the instrument that previously tried to carry all rhythmic and accompaniment duties. In the slow movement, slow brooding bandoneon lines over harp and piano accompaniment led to haunting sonorities you would not hear with any other combination. Gisele Ben-Dor achieved a strings texture that breathed like a single vocalist. This great interpretation of the concerto restored one’s appreciation of the balanced place of the tango nuevo patriarch in this essential repertoire.
As an encore, Pro Arte delivered a hot renditions of Por una cabeza by Carlos Gardel Oblivion by Piazzolla, assuring the gleeful crowd that tango viejo was not about to roll over either.