25 Jan 2019

Philharmonia Chamber Players: Adrián Varela on Piazzolla, Bach & Stravinsky


25 Jan


Join us on Thursday 21 Feb, 6pm, for a free, intimate performance of colourful chamber music by Bach, Stravinsky, and Piazzolla, as part of our long-running Philharmonia Chamber Players series. Ahead of the concert, violinist Adrián Varela reveals how Bach and Stravinsky influenced the tango of Piazzolla.


Piazzolla, Bach and Stravinsky: Finest Musical Fluency

With the arrival of Elvis Presley and the Beatles, the musical interests of young Argentines and Uruguayans veered away from the outmoded ways of ‘Golden Era’ Tango. Piazzolla, a virtuoso bandoneonist in Aníbal Troilo’s famous orchestra, yearned to become a classical composer in the style of his teacher, the great Alberto Ginastera. An admirer of Stravinsky, Piazzolla spent a year in Paris studying with Nadia Boulanger. Boulanger showed Piazzolla that his strength lay in reinventing the Tango.

Over the next few decades, Piazzolla developed his ‘Nuevo Tango, a blend of Tango and compositional techniques and aesthetic traits borrowed from his classical-world guiding lights, celebrated by the new generation but reviled by the establishment. By studying Baroque music, particularly Bach and Vivaldi, Piazzolla developed contrapuntal, fugato, and chorale writing; all techniques previously considered too ‘highbrow’ for the medium. Tango was for dancing, the status quo went, whereas for Piazzolla traditional Tango was dead. To him, the natural home of this new one was the concert hall - echoing Haydn’s relocation of the String Quartet from palace chambers to public spaces 200 years before. The central movement of Suite Punta del Este is a masterpiece in adapting an alien musical concept such as the chorale to the Tango medium.

20th Century music, freer and containing more expressive possibilities, also made its way into Nuevo Tango. Piazzolla found ways to use dissonance, freedom of form and the wider harmonic range found in Stravinsky, Bartok, Prokofiev and Ravel as compositional tools. Before, instruments had fulfilled their traditional roles, in the same way they do in, say, a Big Band. Piazzolla developed the sonorities more symphonically, even when working with just a quintet. This approach opened the door for more musicians (in this context there is hardly a distinction between composers and instrumentalists) to follow suit.

Alongside stylistic fluency there was also a broader musical fluency amongst local musicians close to Piazzolla: people such as Oscar Lopez Ruiz (guitar), Pablo Ziegler (piano) and Rene Marino Rivero (bandoneon). In this sphere it was -and still is- perfectly normal to command disparate musics with the virtuosity of a multilinguist. ‘Marino’, who became my mentor in the genre, would begin solo recitals with Grieg, Schumann or Bach, weaving classical music around Tango, original compositions and improvisations. It made for a sophisticated aesthetic environment where styles, techniques and musicians all intertwined in a less compartmentalised music, with deep, broad aesthetic foundations.

The Suite Punta del Este, given its Argentine premiere in Buenos Aires by Piazzolla and its Montevideo premiere by Rene Marino Rivero, is originally a bandoneon concerto and a prime example of Nuevo Tango. In arranging it for string quartet I have followed the spirit of aesthetic and instrumental fluency which enabled Nuevo Tango, now in its seventh decade, to emerge in the first place. My hope is that by performing Piazzolla ‘surrounded’ by his friends Bach and Stravinsky, audiences will experience in the flesh the strong links between them and look forward to enjoying discovering more, both on a smaller and a larger scale.


Adrián Varela is a member of the 1st violin section of the Philharmonia Orchestra.