Ensemble Monterey

The magic of Astor Piazzolla

By Heather J. Morris

There is a vibrancy and transparency in Astor Piazzolla’s music, unique to his work. Capturing this exhilaration, let alone conveying it to an audience, is not an easy undertaking but on Sunday evening Ensemble Monterey managed not only to do it, but do it with pizazz. The two works on the program were for all intents and purposes concertos, one for violin and one for bandonn, but in both works the soloist was integrated in such a way that it was truly an ensemble performance. There was no ‘I’m the soloist and I’m taking center stage,’ aspect to this show. Indeed there _MG_6623were times when I felt that David Dally (left) could have been more of a showman both with his volume and with his body language but I came to realize that this was the beauty and the strength of his understated but exquisitely virtuosic performance. Equally at home as concertmaster of Ensemble Monterey, conductor at Monterey Peninsula College and violinist with the Marotta Band, which specializes in Latin American music, Dally glided effortlessly from note to note evoking at times sultry nights of humid summers, and at other times summoning early morning dawn choruses with his sparkling high harmonic glissandi. For this was The Four Seasons of Buenos Aires, which incorporates passages directly from Vivaldi’s ubiquitous work into Piazzolla’s, which he himself classified as nuevo tango.

Ever the experimentalist, Piazzolla (1921-1992) was responsible for bringing the mood and rhythms of the tango to the ‘serious’ concert platform. In this arrangement Leonid Desyatnikov uses extended techniques in which the strings provide the role of the percussion by using the wood of the bow or slapping pizzicato where the strings are plucked so hard that they snap the fingerboard. Kelly Beecher on bass was obviously enjoying himself. Piazzolla’s music can change mood in a measure, or can have a quirky turn of phrase as the performer, whether it be a dancer or instrumentalist, changes direction abruptly, creating a piece of music which may at first startle the audience but ultimately keeps them fully engaged. Alongside Dally the musicians of this chamber orchestra under the direction of John Anderson demonstrated some outstandingly sensitive performances, chief among them pianist Lucy Faridany and Judy Roberts on cello–whose expressive solo in ‘Autumn’ was a delight. The ensemble playing was energized and responsive to the nuances of this subtle music and the musicians were obviously taking pleasure. So too, I caught many audience members quietly chuckling as they recognized fragments of Vivaldi’s original Four Seasons – such fun!

The second half of the concert was devoted to Piazzolla’s Aconagua, concerto for bandonn and orchestra, composed in 1979. I recently had the pleasure of hearing Hector del Curto performing on bandonn with pianist Pablo Ziegler, Piazzolla’s long time accompanist. The bandonn has a quite different tone to an accordion with much greater range of timbre and volume depending on the air pressure, direction of the bellows and choice of keyboard for the melody and accompaniment. Dale Harrison has been playing the accordion since he was eight years old and his performance of this three-movement concerto demonstrated his masterful skills. No gentle orchestral introduction here to prepare us for the elegant entrance of the solo part. With the first beat we were thrown into the midst of a full-fledged tango, fortissimo, with powerful string chords energized by harp and percussion shafts of light. The slower middle movement provided a contrasting texture with a very high solo violin soaring over gentle harp, and the final movement ended with a pounding percussive rhythm. 

It was a pity to see that the concert in Santa Cruz did not have a particularly good turnout, but the program had played to a sell-out audience in Carmel the previous evening. The master of ceremonies, Art Schuller, began both halves of the concert with songs by Carlos Gardel whom Wikipedia states was ‘the most prominent figure in the history of tango.’ Schuller’s relaxed introduction and repartee with the audience ensured just the right atmosphere for this music: relaxed, but, oh, so tight.

Heather Morris writes on classical music for the Santa Cruz Sentinel