This year’s Grimeborn festival came to an end on Sunday with an uplifting survey of the career and work of Astor Piazzolla from the new four-person combo, the Tango Collective, ideally suited to a cool late summer evening at the new venue, Arcola Outside.
We may think we know Piazzolla’s tango-dominated output, but the programme introduced by elegant singer and raconteur, William Ludwig, revealed a more layered and complex picture. This is the world of ‘nuevo tango/new tango’ where the focus is not so much on dance but on using the musical conventions of tango, just as JS Bach used fugue, as a channel for a broad palette of emotions and dramatic explorations of pain, loss, conflict, and love. This evening of both songs and instrumental compositions gave us a fine sample of themes of protest, urban desolation, passion disappointed and fulfilled, yearning and memory. All going to show that the traditional embodiment of tango in the movements of the dancers can still be evoked and realised without their physical presence.
There were four performers, all of great individual skill and collective cohesion. Dean Austin’s arrangements allowed all the performers solo opportunities in the limelight within a spirit of jazz collaboration. He also provided on piano the harmonic foundation for each number, which would normally be on the bandoneon, that relative of the accordion which Piazzolla made his own. It is a tribute to his skill that we did not miss this instrument in the idiom of these arrangements. Beatrix Lovejoy on violin and the cellist Ben Chappell are skilled classical musicians, but they slotted into this genre with panache and grace, Lovejoy providing the more virtuosic elements and Chappell both crucial rhythmic underpinning and a persistent tug of melancholic elegy.
William Ludwig held the whole evening together, whether singing some items or introducing each segment with commentary on Piazzolla’s varied life in Argentina and Europe, and the evolution of his compositional style. He pointed out how supple and varied the moods and emotional reach of tango are reaching out nowadays across worldwide audiences. It took him a little while to get the best out of the microphone and to elude its snaking tripwire, but his vocal contribution thereafter was confident and flexible, reminding us that in tango, just as in jazz, the voice acts alongside and as one with the instruments, weaving in and out of the textures rather than standing aside from them.
Indeed, it was in some ways an evening that reminded us of the connections between ‘nuevo tango’ and other genres. The most substantial instrumental item was part of Piazzolla’s version of ‘The Four Seasons’, with more than a nod to the spicy rhythms of Vivaldi. Another remarkable setting, just for voice and cello, evoked both the world of Carmen’s ‘habanera’ and Bach’s cello suites; and in some of the up-tempo numbers there were points where the shade of Edith Piaf and various jazz greats seemed close at hand. There were ten numbers and a couple of encores to conclude. Some songs used English texts by Ute Lemper and other recent exponents of this repertory, while others remained in the original Spanish.
We came away uplifted by the skill of the performers and the intensity of the emotional experience, in the same way that an evening of flamenco can transport you through a very particular spectrum of sound and gesture into an inner world of triumph, defiance, and passionate engagement that makes contact with and resonates across the core of personal memory and experience. Certainly, this audience was most impressed, and for those wanting more, then a further and more extended evening performance at ‘The Pheasantry’ beckons.