The Evening Will Include Guest Artists Bandeonist Héctor Del Curto, Pianist Gustavo Casenave and Bassist Jeff Harshbarger
Kansas Citians have a decades-long love affair with tango. The sultry strains and propulsive rhythms — pulled from the clubs of Buenos Aires into the concert halls by world-famous bandoneonist Astor Piazzolla — have long entranced Midwestern audiences, and they’ll have a chance to experience that thrall again when Bach Aria Soloists presents their ever popular “Night of Tango.”
BAS founder and violinist Elizabeth Suh Lane, with BAS guitarist Beau Bledsoe, invited guest artists bandoneonist Héctor Del Curto, pianist Gustavo Casenave and bassist Jeff Harshbarger to recreate the magic of Piazzolla’s quintet on the Folly Stage on April 21.
This is BAS’ fourth tango show, following standing-room-only performances in 2011 at Lawrence Art Center and All Souls Unitarian Universalist Church and a 1,000-strong audience at Helzberg Hall in 2013. The show in Helzberg Hall was noted as the number-one performance of the 2012 – 2013 season by “KCMetropolis” Editor-in-Chief Lee Hartman.
“It’s one of our most popular programs,” said Suh Lane. “By popular demand we did it again a few years ago and the most common comment we got after that show was ‘When are you going to do it again?’”
“It’s high-octane music,” said Bledsoe.
Piazzolla’s significance and influence in the world of tango cannot be overstated. Through his vision and perseverance, though controversial at the time (people ridiculed him and his music and there were even fistfights during shows), he transformed the music of the popular social dance into a highly regarded art form.
Traditionally, tango was performed by neighborhood “orquestas típicas,” similar in ways to the territory bands of Kansas City jazz in the 1930s, each with their devoted followings. Piazzolla was “trying to push out this very, very sophisticated music, coming out of this dance band.” Bledsoe chuckled, “It didn’t go well.”
But persevere he did, and eventually he and his music would be tango’s standard bearers around the world. “Piazzolla was everything before and after. He was the demarcation,” said Bledsoe.
“People are just starting to peek out of the Piazzolla shadow, now. It’s like post-Coltrane or Charlie Parker, everything just sounded like that for decades — they set the standard. And what’s happening now is a new epoch. It’s very exciting that we can bring that here. It’s the very spirit of Piazzolla . . . what’s next!”
Del Curto is part of that direct lineage of Argentine tango. He won Best Bandonéon Player under 25 when he was 17 and worked with the very top of the genre throughout his career, having played with Piazzolla, Osvaldo Pugliese and Pablo Ziegler. He moved to New York, serving as music director for the Broadway hit “Forever Tango” and now leads his own ensemble. He’s also a recent Grammy Award winner, with the Pablo Ziegler Trio, for the best Latin Jazz album, “Jazz Tango.”
“All of that repertoire is at Hector’s fingertips. There it is — there’s the sound,” said Bledsoe.
Casenave, a Latin Grammy Award-nominated artist, is also a highly regarded jazz pianist and composer. Originally from Uruguay, he’s part of this next wave of performer/composers, blending, as Piazzolla did, jazz, classical and tango, stretching form and harmonic language and challenging the expectations for the art form.
But why the popularity of tango in KC? Years ago, a chance discovery in a music store primed a decades-long devotion. Back in the mid-90s, violinist Christine Brebes found the score for Piazzolla’s “Histoire du Tango,” written for flute and guitar, and asked Bledsoe to work on it with her. They started to dig into the style and formed Tango Lorca, originally a duo, hiring tango professionals to teach them the proper technique. Fedora’s, a club formerly on the Country Club Plaza, hosted a tango night and dancers got wind of it, descending on the establishment, moving tables and chairs to form a dance floor. The tango nights became a weekly event, for years.
Tango Lorca added a rotating roster of musicians, which included Harshbarger (the original pianist was none other than the world-famous Stanislav Ioudenitch, prior to his Van Cliburn gold medal win) and brought in more teachers to authenticate their style. “Not only was it a long-running group, but it became a little mini-school and really transferred knowledge,” said Bledsoe. “You can play the ink and it sounds amazing. But you have to learn the style underpinning it.”
Tango Lorca, which celebrated its 20-year anniversary with a reunion concert last April, brought people together and changed lives. Bledsoe credits those days with meeting his wife, while Brebes moved to Buenos Aires to pursue a full-time career as a tango violinist.
It was during the early days of Tango Lorca, too, that they met Del Curto, who subbed in for a concert in Raleigh, North Carolina, back in 2000. Bledsoe brought Del Curto to KC many times, and he was the obvious choice when BAS pursued a tango program in 2011.
Interestingly, “Histoire du Tango” was the same piece that brought Suh Lane and Bledsoe together. She wanted to play the piece around 2008 and everyone she called recommended Bledsoe. By 2009, he became a permanent member of BAS, and they share their love of many genres.
True, there is limited connection from tango to BAS’ namesake, J.S. Bach. The bandonéon itself was invented in Germany (taking its name from instrument dealer Heinrich Band), originally intended as a cheaper and more mobile alternative for church music then the pipe organ. It migrated to Argentina and Uruguay and became the defining timbre of tango.
But learning Bach’s works was a key part of Piazzolla’s development, which was a hybrid of classical music training and tango schooling. He won a composition competition and one of the prizes was to study with the famed Nadia Boulanger in Paris. She encouraged him to embrace tango as his medium for compositional expression.
The wealth of Piazzolla’s oeuvre gives BAS plenty to draw from. “We’ll definitely play the classics, everybody’s favorites from the quintet repertoire,” said Suh Lane. “We’ll take Hector’s lead on set up, on the repertoire. It’s so wonderful to have a master like that, who is knowledgeable about form and everything.” The group will also perform traditional tunes in the style of “la parilla,” improvising on a melody the way jazz musicians improvise off a lead sheet, as well as work by Casenave.
Of course, just because they’ve played a work before doesn’t mean it will be the same. “There’s a lot ‘off the page,’ too,” she said, referencing the idiomatic stylistic choices, “and that’s why it sounds different every time you play it.”
“It’s surprising us always,” said Suh Lane. And any relationship expert will tell you that that’s the key to a long-term love affair.
Bach Aria Soloists presents “Night of Tango” at 7:30 p.m. April 21 at the Folly Theater, 300 W. 12th St. BAS closes its season with a collaborative concert with the Kansas City Chorale 7:30 p.m. June 16 at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, 11 E. 40th St. For more information and tickets, www.bachariasoloists.com.