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[whitespace] Forever Tango Blazes Vibrant Trail

SJ Chamber Orchestra offers a Buenos Aires take on new classical

By Scott MacClelland

WHILE NEW classical music gropes for direction (after the demise of minimalism), the ghost of Astor Piazzolla continues to haunt its byways. And why not? Didn't Piazzolla blaze a vibrant trail into a universe of nuevo tango that transcended the dance halls of Buenos Aires only to resurface in the wider world's concert halls?

Yet even though the first wave of Piazzolla-mania has passed, his star has far from faded. Indeed, it keeps cropping up in one guise or another. Performing ensembles in all major American metropolises have included Piazzolla in their programs, incidentally sparking renewed interest in other Argentine composers.

A couple of years ago, San Francisco's New Century Chamber Orchestra released a CD of works by Alberto Ginastera and Alberto Williams. Last season, Barbara Day Turner's San Jose Chamber Orchestra offered Piazzolla's The Four Seasons of Buenos Aires.

At Le Petit Trianon last Sunday, the San Jose Chamber Orchestra played the world premiere of Michael Touchi's Tango Barroco and the U.S. premiere of Aaron Helfgot's Improvisacion y Danza, delightful and amusing spin-offs of the ubiquitous Argentine tango, tasty appetizers in anticipation of the "next big thing" in classical music.

Touchi, who subtitled his piece "What if Antonio Vivaldi lived in the Argentina of the 1930s?," may have been influenced by the violinist Gidon Kremer, whose Kremerata Baltica last year issued a CD of The Four Seasons by both Piazzolla and Vivaldi.

In any case, Touchi achieved high pleasure in his three-movement, 18-minute opus, not least for the soprano saxophone of William Trimble and Patricia Emerson Mitchell's English horn. The two winds, with their distinctive timbres, created a multicultural, new-world/old-world counterpoint that would have appealed to the red priest of Venice. Piazzolla, too, would have been struck by the contrast between nuevo tango and the brisk baroque energies that sometimes echoed the work of Karl Jenkins, the Welsh composer best known for his baroque-styled Diamond Music.

The most intriguing work on the program, however, was Henry Mollicone's Inner Light of 1994. According to the program notes, the composer--most widely known for his opera The Face on the Barroom Floor--created the work out of personal crisis. It deals with matters spiritual in a tangible way, portraying childlike innocence, conflict between truth and evil and the transcendence of the mortal soul.

While the message explained in words may not find its exact analogue in music for strings, it does convey a powerful and disturbing image of struggle and doubt. Mollicone here has found a striking modal harmony for this purpose, and he massages its irresolve to haunting effect. Much of the time, the 25-minute triptych captures the unique language of Olivier Messiaen, with modal melodies floating on dominant harmonies, tinged with the lingering stillnesses of Arvo Paîrt. This is particularly evident in the searching themes of the opening movement, Quiet Light, and the broad passages of the second and third movements, respectively Blinding Light and Final Light.

But when that style explodes in jabbing, violent conflict and passionate emotions, the music goes ecstatic. After building a fever pitch in Blinding Light, a fermata (set unfortunately on a noisy page turn) gives way to a tidal surge of great sonority and intensity. Arguably, this was the climax of the piece. Yet more clashes would follow in the final movement, where--again, according to the notes--emotions would undergo continuing struggle before the final release into peace and a "glimpse of heaven" signaled by bells.

Mollicone deserves praise for sustaining a distinctive artistic integrity in the work, and Turner and her players, not a few with standout solos, should take pride in the moment as well. While it doesn't take exceptional imagination to recognize the example of Strauss' Death and Transfiguration here, it must also be noted that music of great emotional turmoil and release--the kind of art that regularly inspires intellectual suspicion--has once again gained the attention of programmers and audiences alike.

Turner's program opened with William Susman's Angels of Light, a minimalistic and oscillating movement developed from a short motto of notes. The 9-year-old piece shows its age, but also shimmers with refracted light. Michael Touchi's piano and a small percussion battery added vivacious colors to the 20 strings.

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From the January 25-31, 2001 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2001 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

For more information about the San Jose/Silicon Valley area, visit sanjose.com.




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