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Trials, Tribulations and Gorgeous Tunes

New York
07/18/2018 -  & July 19*, 25, 26, 2018
Lesley Karsten/Stephen Wadsworth: That’s Not Tango—Astor Piazzolla, A Life in Music
Musical Numbers by Piazzolla: Lo que vendrá – Milonga del Angel – Fuga y misterio – Zita – La Muerte del Angel – Tres mintos con la readlidad – Soledad – Adiós Nonino – Oblivion – La Resurreccíon del Angel – Michelangelo ’70

Lesley Karsten (Astor Piazzolla)
JP Jofre*/Julien Labro (Bandoneon), Eric Silberger*/Nick Danielson (Violin), Brandt Fredriksen (Piano/Music Director)
Stephen Wadsworth (Director), Sarah Meyers (Associate Director), Fernando Gonzalez and Kip Hanrahan (Story and Music Consultants), Daniel Barbee (Lighting Design), Mariah Hale (Costume Design), Gwynne Richmond/Evan Bernadin Productions (General Manager)

L. Karsten, B. Fredriksen, JP Jofre, E. Silberger at SubCulture
(© Samuel A. Dog)

“I still can't believe that some pseudo-critics continue to accuse me of having murdered tango. They have it backward. They should look at me as the savior of tango. I performed plastic surgery on it.”
Astor Piazzolla (1921-1992)

The four performers in this monodrama dedicated to Astor Piazzolla were so extraordinary that I hate to throw a monkey wrench in the proceedings. That comes later.

For this was one audacious production. Astor Piazzolla was certainly a magnetic personality on which to base an hour-long one-actor show. An innate artist whose roots lay in Italy (his ancestry), New York (growing up) Argentina (his start as a radical tango-composer), Paris (hobnobbing with the elite of the musical world, studies with Nadia Boulanger), and a world-wide reputation, Piazzolla could never fit into a single category. He longed to be accepted in the “serious” world, but–like a Hollywood actor longing to do Shakespeare on Broadway–his financial success wouldn’t allow it. He was a “tango” composer, but the hermetic Argentine tango-world loathed him for breaking tradition. Piazzolla composed over 3,500 pieces, and some of them reek of his genius, but the majority are more-self-indulgent that artistic.

So how does That’s Not Tango face these problems? The promotions say it is “gender-bending” to have Lesley Karsten play Piazzolla. But such gernder-bending goes back to Mozart, Monteverdi and Richard Strauss, and is no more eccentric than “race-bending” Sir Lawrence Olivier playing Othello.

On the other hand, Ms. Karsten is a miracle of nature. Coming on stage, scowling at the audience, her voice a smokey Edith Piaf baritone, she relates the endless tribulations and triumphs of Piazzolla.

In the script here (I have no idea how much is Piazzolla, how much is the writing team of Karsten and Wadsworth), the composer is nasty (he calls himself “a sonofabitch offstage”), petulant, and, in the long run, a Hamlet character of indecision.

Does he love the musical diversity of New York? Of course. But he remembers fighting the Jews as a child. Is he a successful tango performer/composer in his youth? Ms. Karsten hates it. Does he have the chance to study with Ginastera?

“Ginastera was a ‘serious’ composer,” says Karsten-Piazzolla with a sneer. Nadia Boulanger, says a snide Piazzolla, was “the greatest teacher since Socrates.”

On the good side, Piazzolla had studied and love his Bach as a child. But now he discovers Ravel! Stravinsky! Bartók!

Bartók pierces the Piazzolla heart, and violinist Eric Silberger plays a few bars from the Second Violin Concerto. Why Bartók? A most fascinating question of inspiration, never plumbed. Obviously the Hungarian composer’s “translation” of folk music would be Piazzolla’s ideal.

For the duration of the show–which goes by like wildfire–Ms. Karsten announces and denounces Piazzolla’s threats from the Tango Establishment, feuds with his children, and an almost unwanted fame toward the end of his life (as well as a Hamlet-like love for his father). And moments are creatively brilliant. As she piles up her relationships and music together in a verbal fugue, the musical trio strikes up Piazzolla’s own Fuga y misterio. (Those hours with Boulanger did pay off!).

A. Piazzolla

I can’t believe that Piazzolla really had these terrors and guilts. He was adored not only by Stravinsky but by Arthur Rubinstein (to think that he discovered both Villa Lobos and Piazzolla), Emanuel Ax, Chick Corea and Rostropovich, everybody who was anybody. His performances on YouTube are fascinating, his mastery of the bandoneon and other instruments has the honesty of the artist, not the ersatz-smile of a Xavier Cugat.

So why so grouchy? Was this a reality, or was it an artifice for a good show? Whether true or not, Ms. Karsten makes his tribulations seem real.

The miracle is the incredible musicianship of the three artists here. In fact, the genius of the three players was as intensive, virtuosic and original as any chamber group in New York. For this, credit must first go to pianist/music director Brandt Fredriksen, though, the music was arranged by Pablo Ziegler and Emilio Solla, whose names were sadly not listed in the program and who deserve great plaudits. Outside of a medley-overture, the music does sound exactly as Piazzolla’s music.

The violin, bandoneon and piano made stunning sounds, alone, in ensemble, in Bach was well as Piazzolla. As an accordion player myself, the bandoneon is something of a mystery, but composer-player Juan Pablo Jofre plays his instrument like a Steinway Grand. Amazing technique. Ditto for violinist Eric Silberger, whose stylish technique was equally amazing.

Thus the good news. And the bad news? Piazzolla’s genius could be stunning, as a few works were here. Yet he frequently wrote music that was lugubrious, bathetic...yes, dreary. Perhaps it was heartfelt, perhaps it echoed the despondency of the Piazzolla character given by Ms. Karsten. Yet through about half of the dozen works played, one felt that Piazzolla was eschewing his unquestioned genius in order to replicate a Tchaikovsky torpor.

This aside, That’s Not Tango is a fascinating, almost mesmeric exercise in acting and music. Like any great “serious” composer, Piazzolla speaks from his grave through Lesley Karsten, “I couldn’t love anyone as much as I loved music.” The torments and self-torture might have been invented or might be real. Yet at its best, Ms. Karsten’s emotions and the tango-based music can be spellbinding

Harry Rolnick



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