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Musical Vagabondage

Wanderings in music
by Kevin T. McEneaney
Sat Nov 14th, 2015

Pablo Ziegler ( second from right) and his Quartet

My wife had driven off with the baby for a three-day visit to a friend. That gave me the luxury of going on a musical binge, attending three concerts in three days. Although a consumer, I pretended for a day to be a musician obsessed with music, the rest of life being an illusory appendage. I was a walking ear.

Trinity-Pawling High School offered a program of tango music on November 13 with Pablo Ziegler Quartet for New Tango. Ziegler is a pianist disciple of the greatest tango master, bandoneon player and composer Astor Piazzolla, who had studied under Nadia Boulanger in Paris.

Ziegler’s approach is to move tango into jazz-inflected abstraction. It’s as if pianist Bill Evans had studied under Piazzolla. As a composer, his piano becomes the brainy intellectual star under which the accordion (that romantic, bleeding heart), the bass (blood following the beat), and the cello (frazzled nerve endings) all labor in diplomatic subservience. Ziegler swings at his best when pounding bass tango rhythms with his left hand while his right hand runs lyrical flights to the moon.

Of Ziegler’s compositions, I favored the ironic repetition in “La Fundicion” (The Factory), his homage to his mentor Piazzolla, “Milonga del Adios,” where Jisoo Ok’s cello evoked some of Piazzolla’s lyric mystery, and “EL Empedrado” (Cobble Stone Street) where the quartet melded in tight unison. They concluded with Piazzolla’s rousing “Chin Chin,” originally a tune for distilled liquor that tasted and smelled like raw gasoline, but was marketed with an attractive bottle and Piazzolla’s foot-stomping tune. This sounded closer to the roots of tango, which originated in Argentinian prisons and dingy same-sex bars whose patrons usually harbored concealed switch-blades before the tango was castrated and gentrified. Gardiner Theater has wonderful acoustics, so I was puzzled by the use of electric amps, but I guess most people prefer a little fizz in their musical cocktail.  

That same afternoon I had attended a piano recital by Gábor Csalog at Bard College. He was under the duress of a long drive from Ithaca, yet that did not stop him from conjuring the wry ironies in György Kurtág’s minimalist flights in Games, 1, 7, and 9. I admit I’m a Kurtág fanatic and was thrilled that several of the pieces Csalog played were unpublished and unrecorded. Csalog is the pianist Kurtág prefers for piano recordings. I was airborne in ethereal meditation and appreciation as he went on to Bach fugues and double fugues, then plunged into several Études (1988-94) by György Ligeti which wrenched lyrical ironies from dissonant clusters; he then careened into Béla Bartok’s Out of Doors (1926) with its conflicting dissonant progressions and lyrical surprises. Csalog (pronounced Tcha-log) was humbly without the egotistic arrogance one sometimes associates with great performers.

On Wednesday The Bardian Ensemble at the László Bitó Conservatory Building provided a program of unusual chamber music pieces by Franz Schreker, Robert Schumann, Alban Berg, and Sergei Taneyev, whose String Quintet No. 1 in G major, op. 14, occupied the second half of the program. This quintet was dynamic with Robert Martin and Raman Ramankrishna’s cellos wringing stringent depths, while Laurie Smukler on first violin evoked fierce emotion as Erica Kiesewetter on second violin grounded the intellectual architecture of the piece with adroit support from Marka Gustavvson on viola. This seamless quintet proved that this forgotten classic belongs in the top rank of chamber music pieces. Martin and Kiesewetter had been the first in America to record this masterpiece back in 1998.