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Trying to Stay True to Tango

TIMES MUSIC CRITIC

Yo-Yo Ma is an admirable superstar.

Willing to try almost anything, and always eager to please, the cellist has also become a diplomat like no other in the world. Only Ma, for instance, could have pulled off a year like this one. John Williams wrote a prominent solo cello role for him in the soundtrack to “Seven Years in Tibet.” Yet as much as that film may have angered the Chinese government, Ma was invited to the state dinner for Chinese President Jiang Zemin at the White House recently. In addition, Ma had appeared in the most important cultural part of the Hong Kong hand-over ceremonies in July, during which he performed the solo cello parts of Tan Dun’s “Symphony 1997,” spectacularly handling everything from ancient Chinese music to modern avant-garde.

Such finesse might seem to bode well for Ma’s latest passion, the tango music of Astor Piazzolla, which the cellist brought, thanks to the auspices of UCLA, to the Wiltern Theatre on Friday night, on the heels of his new Sony CD of this repertory.

This is, in fact, less a leap for a classical musician than are many of Ma’s crossover projects. Piazzolla brought a sophisticated classical training to tango, and many distinguished artists--most notably Gidon Kremer and Mstislav Rostropovich--have successfully entered deep into the Argentine soul of this music.

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Ma is clearly committed to following suit. He (or Sony) has organized an impressive ensemble of four veterans from various Piazzolla ensembles (the composer and bandoneon player died in 1992), along with the crisp, lively and virtuosic British pianist and new music specialist Kathryn Stott. And throughout the concert Ma demonstrated a thorough familiarity with the music, his eyes frequently off the score and garrulously seeking contact with other players.

And yet getting along with tangueros and mastering the notes actually counts for very little in Piazzolla’s tangos. Ma’s beauty of tone, his elegance of phrase, his utter ease with ornament are not enough.

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Piazzolla took the tango someplace it had never been before. Not only did he advance it with experimental harmony and intricate Bachian structure, but he made it mean something new. Before Piazzolla, the tango was an elaborate, beguiling mating dance.

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But Piazzolla’s nuevo tango, intended for the ears, not the feet, is deeper. True to the tradition, his tangos start with sex, but they then move on to life, its desperation and exhilaration. And not just a remarkable composer, the Bach of the tango, Piazzolla was also a stunning musician, whose playing of the accordion-like bandoneon asserted tremendous power. His performances were draining events. Whole audiences broke out in tears. The energy was explosive; the expression cut raw to the bone. Everything seemed right on the edge. Tangueros in Argentina loved Piazzolla for this but they also hated him as well, because he took simple macho sex and made it complicated, painful.

Ma’s Piazzolla is much more restrained, more like bland chamber music--flat, pedestrian, banal. The group, fine as the players are, had no electricity.

Jorge Calandrelli’s arrangements played up Ma’s strong points: his abilities as a Bach player, his great technique and smooth phrasing. Old pros like bandoneon player Nestor Marconi and violinist Antonio Agri offered some glimpses of more authentic, edgier tango style, but they seemed only shadows of their former selves without the galvanizing Piazzolla. Guitarist Horacio Malvicino and bassist Pablo Aslan were strong but mainly backup. Stott is an impressive pianist but literal to the point of overkill.

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But one need only turn to Piazzolla’s best discs to hear the qualities that can’t be described but only experienced in his playing. There is an urgency in, say, “Tres Minutos Con La Realidad” in which the three exhausting minutes of reality are as tightly packed as Webern and his playing of it direct to the point of being scary.

Ma and his followers were indirect, pleasant. No wonder President Clinton wanted him on hand when Jiang Zemin came calling.


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