January 13, 2013

Pomp and Pretense – Reflections on the concert


The Four Seasons of Buenos Aires
11 January 2013
Howard Assembly Room,

It was advertised as a performance that had the pulsating rhythms and sultry melodies of Piazzolla; and the vivid, evocative words of Pablo Neruda, so there was no better company than three music-loving English literature majors – one who liked dance, another who didn’t, and one more who played the violin but walked around wearing a bass clef cap.

The concept was a popular one, interspersing Piazzolla’s Estaciones Porteñas (also known as The Four Seasons of Buenos Aires) with poetry by Pablo Neruda and some other musical works which were supposed to chart the turning of the seasons, but not the overplayed Vivaldi-Piazzolla Four Seasons since it was popularised by violinist Gideon Kremer a decade or so ago.

Opening with the theme of Winter rather than Spring (presumably because we are in the middle of winter), the ensemble was made up of a Sharp, a violinist, an accordion-player, and a keyboardist who played on a giant instrument comprising of a legless harpsichord stacked atop a grand piano. The gentle pulsating chords to the opening of Vivaldi’s Winter gave way to some Händel, the famous aria Ombra Mai Fu from Xerxes, where Xerxes I of Persia admires the shade of a plane tree. This saw Sharp taking centre stage as a ‘bass-baritone’ and trying to use a voice resonating with so much vibrato that the poor tree (if there was one) would have cringed and withered!

An off-stage voice read Octavio Paz’s Los Novios in Spanish, the quartet played Piazzolla’s Invierno Porteño (Winter), and two dancers appeared out of nowhere and began to tango. Got to give them some credit here, this was all quite obviously improvised and not choreographed. What beautiful volcados and ganchos, and oh my goodness, what a figure the female dancer had! One thing that had irked me was the coquettish smile she had on her face. I’ve never seen anyone smile and dance tango, certainly not during a performance, and what more to Piazzolla’s music!

And Sharp was off again, reading Neruda’s ‘Poetry’ and heralding the arrival of Spring in a way too theatrical for my liking (I’ll leave the more eloquent Nathan to deal with those bits). To my right I could see my three companions cringing as much as I was! The whimsical Primavera Porteña followed, and not wanting to be upstaged by the dancers, the strings broke into a most impressive rendition of the Halvorsen’s Passacaglia on a theme by Händel. Both violinist and cellist were technically brilliant, frolicking through it with a comical playfulness.

By the end of intermission we had decided that it would be best if Sharp just played his cello, but the show had to go on, and he had to sing. And read. So sing and read Neruda’s Ode to Wine he did, with much pompousness and pretense.

Verano Porteño (Summer) had some lovely accordion solos in it, and so did Piazzolla’s Oblivion, and I thought it unusual that the accordion was given so little to do. In usual tango orchestras, the bandoneon would be the prima donna of the ensemble! Speaking of Oblivion, the two dancers decided to, for a change, put in contemporary dance in the middle of (dancing) tango. Maybe they thought, “since we’re making up all of the tango on the spot, we better rehearse something to make it look like we actually worked, so let’s put in some modern dance here.” Bad idea. It could’ve worked better with another piece, but not when the music was practically calling for them to tango.

Sharp wasn’t so bad a singer, he pulled off Rodgers & Hart’s My Funny Valentine rather convincingly; supported by the sensitive playing of the ensemble who passed the melody seamlessly back and forth from accordion, to violin… then to cello where Sharp had returned to his seat and continued playing.

In all, it was not a terrible performance, but it didn’t work out all that well either – there was a sense of cellist Matthew Sharp being overambitious and trying to do too much – play cello, read poetry, and sing; I’d bet if he could dance tango and juggle flaming chainsaws he would, too.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *