On a day when the country and the world remembered the most horrific terrorist attacks which have occurred on our soil, it was simply a relief to change gears after church, grab lunch and attend this debut of a budding tango orchestra at St. Matthias Church. The historic church, believed to be Asheville’s oldest historically African-American congregation, is the venue of choice for various community chamber music and jazz concerts where free-will donations help with the restoration of the building which was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1979.
The Asheville Tango Orchestra under the direction of Michael Luchtan is a relative newcomer to the area music scene, existing only since 2010 to provide dance music for dance gatherings. For this first concert by the group we heard a classic sextet tipico of players: violinists Lindsay Pruette and Lew Gelfond, Patrick Kukucka and Brett Brothwell on accordions in lieu of traditional bandoneóns, and a rhythm section of Elsa O’Farrell, piano and Jeff Hersk, double bass. Complimenting the instrumentalists who performed music in sets of 3 pieces (each set is known as a tanda) were dancers Eric Gebhard and Susannah Patty who danced the final trio of pieces ending each half.
The programming consisted chiefly of tango music from the golden age of Argentinian tango — identified by the group as music from the 1930’s after the tango had migrated to western Europe — through modern compositions by Astor Piazzolla. Other than Piazzolla, composer of “Oblivion” near the end of the concert, no other composers were identified on the program or from the stage. Other works in this set were “Shusheta,” “Comme Il Fait,” “Corozon De Oro,” “Ella Es Asi,” and “La Cumparsit,” the latter the traditional ending piece to an evening of dancing. Works in the first half were “Milonguero Viejo,” “El Flete,” “Hotel Victoria,” “Rodiguez Pena,” “Nostalgicas,” and “Lagrinias y Sonrisas.”
While the players are making a place for themselves in the life of a segment of Asheville’s dance community, they have a way to go as concert performers. The piano was the real exception here, as O’Farrell (who will be leaving the group) is a professional musician with not only chops, but a sense of styling that, for the most part, was not picked up on by strings and accordions. Unfortunately, the ensemble too frequently sounded like a garage band reading through pieces instead of executing a consistent degree of concentration, energy, and both rhythmic steadiness and flexibility to make the music really come alive.
In an obeisance to the tragic events a decade ago, Luchtan composed and sang mid-concert a series of three songs “Tango Down,” “Spread the News,” and another (whose title escaped me) of forgetting and moving past wrongs, in keeping with themes of reconciliation, emancipation, and forgiveness in the other 2 songs. While the lyrics I could make out were somewhat compelling, the performance of these “country folk songs” was belted out unmusically and off-key with a lackluster violin accompaniment in songs 1 and 3, as though the moniker “country folk” gave license for this sort of travesty. Generally good musicianship, never a peripheral matter in any music, is what an audience comes to experience and what we missed here today.