Buenos Aires: Then & Now Program Notes

Written by Steven Blier

Artistic Director, NYFOS

In category: Program Notes

Published February 14, 2022

My love for Argentinean music began with a single song:  Carlos Guastavino’s “La rosa y el sauce,” which I heard at Dalton Baldwin’s art song seminar in Princeton 41 years ago. The music worked like a drug on my nervous system. I begged the performers for a copy, since Guastavino’s music was well-nigh unavailable in the States at the time. Eventually that song made its way onto my first commercial recording, a recital disc with baritone Christopher Trakas.

The love affair blossomed during NYFOS’s first season in 1988, when we offered From Rio to Buenos Aires. And it has never flagged. Tonight we dive back into the spellbinding music of Argentina: the delicacy of its art songs, the sultry five o’clock shadow of its tangos, and the vibrant sonorities of its contemporary voices.

 

ART SONG

My admiration for Carlos Guastavino (1912–2000) has only grown with the passing of the decades. He’s usually characterized as an Argentinean nationalist because so many of his songs are filled with folkloric elements and native dance rhythms. While his avant-garde colleagues were scoring points with the press, Guastavino remained true to his belief in lyricism and simplicity. His faith in tonality amounted to a passion, as did his abhorrence of serialism. Naturally he had his detractors, who were sure that twelve-tone music would run roughshod over Guastavino’s elegant melodic gift in a matter of decades. But Guastavino and his many fans seem to have won out. He wrote between 500 and 600 songs, of which only 170 or so have been published. Clearly there is a lot left to discover about this invaluable songwriter. The more I play his songs, the more I feel he earns his sobriquet, “The Schubert of the Pampas.”

Guastavino lived a simple, austere life, shunning not just the spotlight but the company of friends and admirers. He kept his love life secret, though it appears he had a relationship with the poet Francisco Silva Valdés, the lyricist for one of Guastavino’s most famous songs, “Pueblito, mi pueblo.”

Guastavino once said that his idea of success was hearing his music sung or whistled in the streets by ordinary folks—people who would have no idea he had written the tune they loved. The same could not be said for Alberto Ginastera (1916–1983). The distinguished musicologist Ana Lucia Frega described him as a showoff—a man with a healthy ego, an instinct for marketing, and a wife who functioned as his PR rep. Ginastera began his career like Guastavino, writing in a lyrical, nationalist style. His iconic song, “Canción al árbol del olvido,” comes from this early period. But from the beginning his music had more of an edge than Guastavino’s. As time went on, Ginastera’s music became more dissonant, more overtly modern, and as a result more internationally recognized. The Argentinean element was always present, but it was now festooned with twelve-tone rows, microtones, and noisy aleatory sections—the preferred musical currency of 60s and 70s. His operas Bomarzo and Beatrix Cenci made headlines at New York City Opera with their splashy orchestrations, nudity, and blood-stained story lines. Ginastera was able to bring flair and color to atonal music, although at his wildest his vocal lines are quite difficult to sing. He remains Argentina’s flagship composer—a tribute to his twin talents for music and marketing.

I have a soft spot in my heart for the music of Carlos López Buchardo (1881–1948). He was a native of Buenos Aires, but unlike Ginastera and Guastavino, he completed his musical studies in Paris, where his teacher was Albert Roussel. When he came home to Buenos Aires, López Buchardo took on the massive task of bringing musical education to Argentina through a series of administrative assignments—director of the Teatro Colón, founder of the National Conservatory, and a government post as National Director of Music. His high-profile day jobs left him comparatively little time to compose, and his output is somewhat meager in comparison to his extremely prolific colleagues.

Yet what beauty he created, particularly in his songs. The combination of salty Argentinean rhythms with the sweet glaze of French impressionistic harmony gives his music a soft sensuality unlike any other Argentinean composer. López Buchardo had a live-in muse:  his wife, the charismatic and temperamental soprano Brígida Frías. She premiered the lion’s share of his canciones, including the three we’ll hear tonight. Like her husband, she was passionate about establishing a school of Argentinean art song, and devoted much of her career to promoting the repertoire of her countrymen.

The two became a power couple in Argentinean cultural circles. Alas, her passions did not extend only to her husband, and there were always rumors about their somewhat troubled marriage. But of Carlos’s affections for Brígida there was never any doubt. His tender music is like a love song to his gifted, if flighty, wife.

Belgian-born Julio Perceval (1903–1963) emigrated to Argentina at the age of 23, invited by a avant-garde composers’ association called the Grupo Renovación. They must have been impressed with Perceval’s ability as an improviser. So were the Buenos Aires theaters, where Perceval quickly found employment as an organist for silent movies. He soon moved on to become a beloved professor and director at several important Argentinean conservatories. The bulk of his creative energy was spent as a teacher; he wrote just 60 works, which normally would reduce him to a footnote in South American music history. But his songs have a special vitality, a bewitching vigor and melodic grace that make them go-to items for recital programs and recordings. In “La madrugada,” Perceval exploits a uniquely Argentine musical dance rhythm, the malambo—a series of constantly shifting accents within a 6/8 measure, slicing up the beats in a dazzling array of variations. López Buchardo and Ginastera also powered some of their songs with this rhythmic motor, but Julio Perceval outdoes them all in this virtuosic song.

The line between art song and popular song can be porous in South American music. Such is the case of “Alfonsina y el mar” by Ariel Ramírez (1921–2010), whose range of interpreters has included both the great Argentinean folksinger (and freedom-fighter) Mercedes Sosa, and the Spanish superstar tenor José Carreras. The song is a tribute to Alfonsina Storni (1892–1938), a much revered Argentinean poet and a trailblazing feminist. When she contracted an incurable form of cancer, she took her own life by walking into the sea.

Ramírez rose to international attention with his 1964 work Misa criolla, a mass for tenor, chorus, percussion, keyboard and Andean instruments. He broke new ground by inserting traditional Argentine rhythms into the Catholic liturgy, as well as elaborations of the text by poet Félix Luna. The original recording of Misa Criolla was a runaway hit in America—it seemed that every left-leaning middle-class household boasted a copy. A later remake with Mercedes Sosa won the first Latin Grammy Award in the year 2000.

 

TANGO

Any program about Buenos Aires has to pay tribute to its long tradition of tango. In our country, tangos are often used for parody, a short-hand way to evoke the flared nostrils and piercing eyes of the stereotypical Latin lover. But for South Americans, tango has deep roots and profound significance. It is as intrinsic an expression of their culture as the blues is for Americans.

Like the blues, tango has competing origin stories. It seems to have emerged in the 1870s, a mixture of Spanish flamenco, Cuban habanera, and home-grown milonga. Some say the first tangos were danced by pairs of men in the waiting rooms of bordellos. Others claim it was a Latin substitute for the barroom brawl, a way for men to engage safely in competitions for dominance. It allowed their sublimated aggression to percolate without descending into outright violence.

Current historians have another explanation. At the end of the nineteenth century there had been an influx of men immigrating to Argentina as they fled European famine. This created a huge gender imbalance in the population. Men needed to be good dancers in order to attract female mates at a weekend social, and during the week they practiced in male-male couples. Tango was only one of many dances in their repertoire, but it was special. According to Daniel Trenner, an American tango expert, “The risqué thing that made the tango different from other dances is you put your leg in between the space between the followers legs. The tango was their fantasy dance of what theyd like to do with the girls but didnt get to.” Of course, tango was a boon to the still-closeted gay community in Buenos Aires. They were much in demand because they were more relaxed about not leading, making them willing dance partners for their macho friends.

After the first published tango appeared in 1910, the craze grew. It reached its first golden age in the 1920s and 30s with the rise of Carlos Gardel,“The King of Tango.” Composer of many of Argentinas most famous popular songs, Gardel became a matinée idol and recording star, worshipped by millions. His career coincided with the beginning of the talkies, and while Gardel’s movies—10 full-length and 11 shorts—look very primitive to us now, they were a sensation in their day. Handsome and honey-voiced, he had a gift for melody that created hit after hit. His music continues to drive audiences mad, both through rhythm (“Por una cabeza”) and seductive tenderness (“El día que me quieras”).

In 1935, Gardel and his lyricist Alfredo Le Pera perished in a plane crash. Theories were instantly advanced about what brought the plane down—was it weighed down by too many copies of Gardel’s recent movie, or was the pilot was flying recklessly because of a rivalry with another pilot nearby? We’ll never know. But when Gardel’s body finally arrived in Buenos Aires, 40,000 people lined the streets to say goodbye. To this day, people visit his grave and place a lit cigarette in the hands of the statue next to it.

Tango had started out as a spirited, somewhat disreputable dance. Gardel brought it into mainstream culture, taming it with romance and sentiment. In some ways Astor Piazzolla (1921–1992) steered tango back to its origins:  his nuevo tango eschewed sentimentality in favor of a tough aggressiveness. Using elements of jazz and the chiseled counterpoint of Bach, he lifted tango to its greatest heights. Traditionalists squawked, but the world embraced it with open arms.

Piazzolla was born in Argentina, but his family took up residence in New York City during his boyhood. He learned to be street-wise in the then-violent neighborhood of Greenwich Village. Piazzolla discovered his musical talent early:  his music-loving father saw a bandoneon in a pawn shop and brought it home to his eight-year old son. Young Astor would have preferred a baseball hat. But his father was mad for tango. And his gift gave birth to one of the greatest careers in twentieth century music.

During his years in New York Piazzolla met Gardel, who spotted the talent in the teenager. Gardel gave him a small part in his last movie, and then invited him to come on tour with him. Piazzolla’s father refused to let him go—he was only 14 years old. It was a lucky intervention: this was the tour that ended with Gardel’s plane crash. “If I had gone,” said Piazzolla years later, “I would have ended up playing the harp, not the bandoneon.”

The irresistible, dark fire of Piazzolla’s music has mass appeal. But it has also been a magnet for classical heavyweights like Yo-Yo Ma, Emmanuel Ax, Daniel Barenboim, Mstislav Rostropovich, and Gidon Kremer. His tangos may smoke a joint in the alleyway, but they bear an impressive pedigree. As a young man, Piazzolla studied with Alberto Ginastera in Buenos Aires and pored over the scores of Béla Bartók. When he was 33, he went to Paris to work with the great Nadia Boulanger. Tired of his success as a composer of tangos, he presented her with his purely classical works. She reserved judgment on him until—at her request—he finally played his tango “Triunfal.” Boulanger knew instantly that this was his calling, and with her encouragement he committed himself to a life as a tanguero.

Piazzolla’s music bears the traces of all of his influences—Gardel, Bach, Ginastera, Bartók, and Boulanger. But its macho edge is also an expression of his character. Piazzolla was a pugnacious man with a short temper and a ready fist. “Never wait for someone to hit you,” counseled his father. “You hit first!” Tangos like “Michelangelo 70” and “Siempre se vuelve a Buenos Aires” do exactly that. It is the closest I will ever come to a barroom brawl, and I win every time.

 

CONTEMPORARY VOICES

It made sense that Jorge Parodi, who assisted me in programming this concert, brought the music of Esteban Benzecry to my attention. Jorge was already close to the family—Père Benzecry, Mario, had been one of Jorge’s conducting teachers in Buenos Aires. But it was inevitable that my research would have led me to the music of Benzecry fils, who has established himself as one of Argentina’s most important contemporary voices.

He was born in Portugal in 1970 when his father was conducting the Gulbenkian Orchestra of Lisbon.The family soon returned to Buenos Aires, but Esteban has maintained close ties to both Argentina and Europe, with important teachers on both continents. Nowadays his bio describes him as a French-Argentinean composer. But his homeland has taken pride in him. By age 22, he had been declared “the young revelation of the season” by the Musical Critics Association of Argentina, who went on to give him four subsequent awards for “Best New Argentine Work.”

Benzecry’s music is said to emerge from the tradition of Ginastera and Villa-Lobos. Certainly its wild colors evoke Ginastera at his most avant-garde, while the folkloric elements of his thematic material are reminiscent of Villa-Lobos’s forays into the remote regions of Brazil. Benzecry has said, “[While] I take certain roots, melodies, rhythms and mythological legends of our continent as a source of inspiration…my intention is not to do ethnomusicology or orchestrate folk melodies.” He works, he says, “in a more free and intuitive way, integrating these elements into my language.” Benzecry was also trained as a painter—another key to the splashes of vivid color in his music.

You’ll hear all of his influences in the Ciclo de canciones we’re sampling tonight. Benzecry composed it for the Japanese coloratura soprano Ayako Tanaka, whose stratospheric staccatos inspired the work’s virtuoso vocal line.

I met Ezequiel Viñao (b. 1960) at a formal Juilliard luncheon in 2005. He proved to be not just a bracing lunch companion (at a somewhat stiff event) but an enduring friend. Warm, challenging, opinionated, and embracing, Ezequiel has repeatedly opened my mind to new sounds and new ideas. After graduating from Juilliard he remained a denizen of New York, which has been his home since 1980. Ezequiel went on to a distinguished career:  studies with Olivier Messaien, a Carnegie Hall premiere, and a staggeringly creative series of projects involving film, large-scale narratives, and a wide range of musical cultures. Ezequiel thinks big.

When I called him for advice about repertoire for this concert, he reminded me that he had written a cycle of songs based on Neruda poems. “Oh, but they’re scored for an ensemble.” “You could do them on piano.” “Or…two pianos?” I suggested, knowing that Shawn Chang would be sharing the stage the me. “Even better.”

When I think of Ezequiel’s music, I imagine the dark timbres and the brooding quality of the first of his works I heard—the string quartet and the piano études. But for many years he has also been involved with the possibilities of modern sound processing, modulating source material with an array of electronic programs. These lend other colors—sometimes ethereal, sometimes weighty—to his music.

The Sonetos de Amor are in a category of their own. They have a strain of Ezequiel’s moody blues, but they also possess an ardent vulnerability. Ever since his adolescence, Ezequiel has had a deep attachment to Neruda’s poems. He explained:  “There is no way I could write music to this poetry in a modernistic style. It needed something more immediate, like a world music-fusion style.”

The five poems represent, in his words, “five archetypal stages of romantic love: discovery, consummation, neurotic obsession, fear of loss, and loss itself.” Ezequiel told me that he wrote them when he himself was in the throes of a turbulent relationship, and the piece emerged from his emotional state at the time.

In order to perform them, though, I had an obstacle to overcome. The Sonetos are made up of five songs interspersed with five instrumental interludes, each featuring one of the players in the ensemble. But the interludes are “controlled” improvisations, originally a duet between the player and the composer. At the premiere, Ezequiel took the live sound of his players and processed it with a laptop in real time—a one-of-a-kind performance. For the recording, he did something altogether different:  he took the recorded improvs (which were based on the actual songs) and sliced-and-diced them on his computer, effectively composing a new piece out of the original material. Of course, none of this was written down.

It helps to have talented and generous colleagues. Shawn Chang spontaneously volunteered to notate the piano improv, “Color de marfil,” working tirelessly with the Sonetos recording over the course of several days to generate a two-piano score for us. He also made the two-piano version of the song, “El fuego es tu reino,” collapsing the quintet accompaniment into a duo. I am thrilled to be able to offer both of Ezequiel’s pieces tonight, especially his beautiful piano “improv”—constructed out of scrambled samples, lovingly set down on paper by Shawn, and revealing new beauties as the two of us work on it.

I asked Ezequiel if he went back to Buenos Aires often. “Well, not since the pandemic. And there was a seventeen-year period I didn’t go at all. But generally once a year.” “And how do you feel about Buenos Aires now?” I asked. “Well, New York is home. But Buenos Aires is the city that is in my veins. There are a lot similarities between the two—they’re both hectic, in-your-face towns.”

“And what’s it like when you’re back?” He paused. “I am very attached to Buenos Aires, but this attachment is to a Buenos Aires that no longer exists—and yet the feeling is quite strong.”

With those words Ezequiel put his finger on something essential about that city:  a pervasive feeling of nostalgia that runs through so much of its music and poetry. As the great Argentinean lyricist Eladia Blázquez wrote in “Siempre se vuelve a Buenos Aires”:

            One always comes back to Buenos Aires, to look for.   
            That melancholy way to love
            Only someone who has been sick with nostalgia,
            almost to the point of death, could understand it!

I understand this. I too feel a deep longing for Buenos Aires—and I have never even been there. At this point, I may never get to see that magical city. But I’ll always have these beautiful songs to show me “that melancholy”—and irresistible—“way to love.” And I shall always come back to Buenos Aires through her music—just as the song predicts.

 

I owe a  debt of gratitude to many people for tonight’s program:  Jorge Parodi who helped program and publicize the event through his organization, Opera Hispánica; Shawn Chang, who spent days transcribing Ezequiel Viñao’s complex score; Federico De Michelis, who offered his deep expertise in the music of his country with kindness and generosity; my brother Malcolm Blier who proofread my translations; and baritone Victor Torres, whose recordings of Argentinean song have made my heart beat faster for decades. Like Federico, he offered sound advice, repertoire suggestions, and that rarest of all gifts, printed scores for songs unavailable in the States. This concert took a village, and I was lucky enough to have a superb one.

author: Steven Blier

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Called “the coolest dude in town” by Opera News, master collaborative pianist and coach Steven Blier is the co-founder and artistic director of New York Festival of Song. Here on No Song is Safe From Us, Steven blogs about the NYFOS Emerging Artist residencies, writes the engaging and erudite program notes for our Mainstage concerts, and contributes frequently to Song of the Day.

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