17 February 2008

Canberra’s Argentinian connection

Latin is a key component in the stylistic repertoire of jazz. Tango is Argentina’s version of latin, and Astor Piazzolla is tango’s great composer. So I was interested to attend a minor opera, in a style called Tango Operita, which had two outings under the musical direction of Marcela Fiorillo at the Multicultural Festival.

Marcela’s an interesting story and a great addition to the Canberra musical scene. She is Argentinian-born and a former professor in the piano department at the Superior Conservatory of Music “Manuel de Falla” in Buenos Aires. Apparently she met her mate in Canberra, and now lives here. It’s a pleasing story of internationalism, and one very much to Canberra’s advantage. Canberra is like that: understated, but over-represented with capable and interesting people. I guess it’s the way of the bureaucrat.

The operita was Maria de Buenos Aires, with music by Astor Piazzolla and a libretto by Horacio Ferrer. It tells a strange and sometimes amusing story with obvious references to Maria as Madonna, but also as the personification of the tango and the city. Maria goes to the heart of Buenos Aires, visits the sewers, becomes a prostitute, dies, attends a psychoanalyst, is resurrected and eventually has a child who is not Jesus but another baby Maria, perhaps the self-same Maria resurrected from her own shadow by the love of the Goblin. Mmm … such is opera.

The cast included Marcela on piano, three voices, six musicians, and a mixed choir of eight (details below). I have various impressions. The latin rhythm and the low ranges of the voices, the rough but so apt performance of the small male and female choirs, the frequency and rhythm of Spanish speech (the goblin only spoke, the choir spoke its lines).

The performers were classically trained, but there was close relation to jazz forms. Marcela’s parts were presumably fully written. It interested me that it was spot on for what I’d expect from a good jazz pianist improvising from a much sparser lead sheet. But what reading skills! As for reading, the violin had a busy job too, and performed it with panache. This was a thing of real beauty. The flautist also featured on the diminutive piccolo, and the cello was busy with feature melodies. I don’t picture classical players performing latin with ease, but this seemed authentic and was certainly satisfying. Perhaps this is a travesty, but I would have liked to have heard a jazz drum kit in there, but I’m sure it’s not written for that. This is essentially rhythmic music, and classical percussion doesn’t quite lock in the pocket or push the groove in the way jazz players do. But I was satisfied to see feet tapping on stage. The goblin tapped persistently and his spoken words were beautifully musical and rhythmic. Maria also tapped at times. The infectious grooves were insinuating themselves.

As for the work itself, by the end I was finding it a bit repetitive. The rhythm varied (tango, waltz, and triplet feels like 12/8 and 9/8) but the chords were pretty repetitive, as were some melodies. Jazz uses similarly repetitive tunes, but empowers them through improvisation, so it’s alive and constantly changing. The written version provided some great solos, a surreal story, and wonderful playing, but towards the end, I came to think I’d heard the changes once too often.

But there’s no doubting the performance. To perform a piece with this complexity with a non-standing group and with only two performances is stunning. Classical players do this every day, of course, and it’s a great strength. But it’s got its down side: not quite so close to the music, or quite so comfortable with it. The encore showed this dramatically, as they repeated a favourite song by Maria with relaxation and dynamics and flare that was missing from the serious part of the performance, where everyone was concentrating hard on a challenging task. There’s no questioning of the players here. They were fabulous and supremely competent, but you just can’t bring together something as complex as this for a few performances, and expect to perform it with the intimacy that comes from frequent performances by a standing ensemble.

The performers were: Marcela Fiorillo (piano and musical director), Bronwyn Sullivan (vocals, Maria), Alejandro Machuron (vocals, Goblin), Eduardo Cogorno (vocals, various characters), Julian Smiles (cello), Dimity Hall (violin), Max McBride (bass), Virginia Taylor (flute, piccolo), Veronica Walshaw (percussion), Charles Martin (tuned percussion as in vibes, marimba), Ota de la Rocha, Cesar Molina, Javier Ribalta, Mabel Castro, Gabriela Cabral, Bibi Amstein, Carmen Diaz, James Gifford (chorus, various characters), Judy Clingan (choral director), Jorge Bagnini (artistic director).

It was an interesting and entertaining night out, and a superb performance all round by these players. Stunning stuff, and surprisingly close to the jazz which is the raison d’etre of CJ.

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