His oeuvre revolutionized the traditional tango into a new style termed nuevo tango , incorporating elements from jazz and classical music. A virtuoso bandoneonist, he regularly performed his own compositions with a variety of ensembles. In , American music critic Stephen Holden described Piazzolla as "the world's foremost composer of tango music". In Astor Piazzolla moved with his family to Greenwich Village in New York City, which in those days was a violent neighbourhood inhabited by a volatile mixture of gangsters and hard-working immigrants. At home he would listen to his father's records of the tango orchestras of Carlos Gardel and Julio de Caro , and was exposed to jazz and classical music , including Bach , from an early age.
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DURING one of the first performances of Astor Piazzolla's self-described ''little opera,'' ''Maria de Buenos Aires,'' in , a voice rose from the audience, repeatedly emitting profane exclamations. Backstage after the show, the culprit was discovered: it was the Brazilian poet Vinicius de Moraes, paying homage in his paradoxical way to the composer's astonishing achievement. Piazzolla, after all, had managed to compose a musical theater work that, like the rest of his Nuevo Tango music, defied popular and classical categories and stood in a class of its own.
Despite Piazzolla's description, ''Maria de Buenos Aires,'' which the violinist Gidon Kremer and his instrumental ensemble, Kremerata Musica, will present in a concert version from Wednesday through Friday at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, is not really an opera as we know it.
The vocal interventions are more often recited than sung; the singing is written for tango or cabaret performers, and the original orchestra was a mere extension of Piazzolla's own quintet, of bandoneon, violin, guitar, piano and bass, with strings, flute and percussion, adding up to only 11 players. What's more, the original performances were oratoriolike events, in which the singers, narrator and band shared the stage, almost statically. The music of ''Maria de Buenos Aires'' is choice Piazzolla.
The vocal segments feature memorable melodies in a variety of styles, from the composer's trademark pulsating tangos to dreamy milongas and waltzes, and even the odd march. The music beneath the recitation lends inspiring background without being obtrusive, and the instrumental segments rank among the best examples of Piazzolla's output. The theme ''Fuga y Misterio,'' for example, weaves a superb fugue out of a bar syncopated theme chock-full of notes, segues into a powerful tutti and ends in a quiet Baroque arioso.
Piazzolla himself regarded ''Maria'' as the beginning of his most productive period and the precursor of his most successful songs. Many of those, like the widely performed ''Balada Para un Loco,'' were co-authored by the other person indissolubly linked to ''Maria de Buenos Aires,'' the Uruguayan-born poet Horacio Ferrer.
As a teen-ager, Mr. Ferrer met Piazzolla, who was 12 years older, in , when the composer was a band leader in Buenos Aires. After the publication of Ferrer's first book of tango-inspired poems, in , Piazzolla suggested that they work together on a piece for musical and poetic theater. They rented a summer house in the tiny seaside resort of Parque del Plata, Uruguay, and wrote most of ''Maria'' together during 30 days of frantic work. In addition to writing the libretto, Mr. Ferrer played El Duende The Goblin , reciting his poetry onstage in the initial run of performances and in the original-cast recording of The performances follow a new recording of the work by most of the same forces, led by Mr.
Kremer, who is one of the most forceful and dedicated champions of Piazzolla's music today Teldec ; two CD's. The significance of these efforts cannot be overestimated. Latin American opera and musical theater are rare commodities outside and even within Latin America, and ''Maria de Buenos Aires'' has had a motley performance career.
The original run was a financial disaster. Reviews were mixed, and the few foreign performances did not materialize until much later. Part of the problem with exporting the work may have stemmed from the libretto, which is written in Lunfardo, the slang of the Buenos Aires and Montevideo demimonde and of many tango lyrics. An obscure dialect of Spanish incorporating Italian, French and Portuguese expressions, Lunfardo is hard even for Spanish speakers to understand.
Then, too, the story is bound to confound those expecting a traditional opera plot. Ferrer's poetry mixes a surreal and symbolic cocktail of the common life of the Rio de la Plata, the mythical world of tango and prostitution, and Roman Catholic religion and rituals.
Maria was born in the suburbs ''one day when God was drunk,'' the text proclaims. The Goblin pines for the lost Maria and conveys a message, offering her the secret of fertility and redemption. Consistent with an elaborate parallel to the Mother of Christ, Maria, immaterial and thus ''virgin forever,'' is united with the spirit of the Goblin and gives miraculous birth not to a boy but to a girl, also called Maria. A fantastical story, blasphemous to boot, and a challenging libretto have added to the fascination as well as the difficulty of ''Maria de Buenos Aires.
With the narration mostly obliterated and the singing parts extended, the operation was a success, but the patient lay dead on the table. The adaptation is roundly condemned by Daniel Piazzolla, who says that his father disapproved of it, and by Mr. Kremer, who hews close to the original format. Kremer's recording uses a new arrangement by Leonid Desyatnikov, which reduces the forces to only eight instruments and tries to update the sound.
The reassignment of parts, though by no means an improvement, remains respectfully and serviceably close to the original. The new recording invites comparison with the version on a Trova CD , which may still be found in stores. There, Piazzolla himself, on bandoneon, was joined by Amelita Baltar and Hector de Rosas as vocalists. Wisely, Mr. Kremer professes no desire to improve on that performance.
Indeed, Piazzolla leads his instrumentalists with demonic force, and the vocalists are splendid, obviously benefiting from their prolonged theatrical exposure. Baltar, a folk singer, was Piazzolla's longtime lover in a relationship that ended in acrimony.
As Maria, her voice is tremulous, breathy, rough and limited in range, but her unique delivery and involvement are hard to surpass. None of the Kremerata artists can yet claim such absolute ownership of the material, but they deliver a loving and legitimate version. Ferrer, Ms. Zenko and Jairo, the male vocalist, joined Mr. Kremer just days before the recording. The tempos are consistently slower than in the original version, and the singers are more cautious with rubato.
It will be interesting to see on Wednesday how the current Kremerata tour with the work has affected interpretation. The Kremerata recording is beautifully produced, with extended historical notes and complete translations of the libretto in German, French and English. The English is about 95 percent accurate. The sound is clear, but balances sometimes favor the instruments to the detriment of the singers and narrator, who will be aided by amplification in live performance.
Kremer's recent dedication to Piazzolla is remarkable. Kremer said. At that time, I didn't even dream of performing it. But later, when I found myself able to participate in it, there was no other choice than just to look for more and more scores or instrumentations, or create instrumentations myself, in order to feel at home in Piazzolla-land. Since I was close to Schubert, it was rather easy for me to build a bridge to Piazzolla.
Piazzolla in his works, in his constructions, gives me the freedom I don't always find in other contemporary composers. I am not yet over with the Piazzolla frenzy in my life. I am still fully in love with this composer, and I can imagine that I will still have something to do with him in the future. Meanwhile, Mr. Kremer offers a rare opportunity to take a serious look at ''Maria de Buenos Aires. Will stage productions follow? From heaven or hell, the maestro is watching.
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Fuga y Misterio by Astor Piazzolla (Arr. Wesley Hopper)
A Composer Defying Categories