Duke University's Baldwin Auditorium – dating back to its original configuration – has probably hosted thousands of quartet performances. Yet it is only with the appearance of Pablo Ziegler and his Quartet for New Tango that this particular collection of instruments – piano, double bass, cello, and bandoneon – have appeared on its stage. Duke Performances continued its marvelous sense of programming elegance and eloquence with a group that is universally accepted as the exemplar of Nuevo Tango, the modern, reimagined form of the tango, the most recognizable music and dance form of Argentina.
Pablo Ziegler, a 70 year-old whirlwind of virtuoso piano chops and brilliant compositions, has had a long and distinguished career in a varied and eclectic collection of musical styles. During the late 1970s through 1989 he was Astor Piazzolla's pianist, playing on many of the seminal recordings that defined and broadened the neuvo tango style, one that combines elements of traditional Argentinean tango with jazz and western classical music. After Piazzolla's death in 1992, Ziegler formed his own group, successfully stepped out of the shadow of Piazzolla (who is practically a musical deity in Argentina), and launched a spectacular career that expanded a genre many thought had exhausted all its possibilities.
Ziegler brought along three musicians of extraordinary pedigrees and experience, and they played together as if their DNA were in synch. On double bass was Pedro Giraudo, a refined and expressive player who only had a few moments to step out and solo but who supported the others with rhythmic elegance and flawless intonation. The cellist, Jisoo Ok, a Juilliard-trained musician who has gone on to become one of the most sought-after players in this style, amply demonstrated her sensitivity to the nuances of this music. Finally, and perhaps most importantly to the unmistakable sound of the tango, was Hector Del Curto, bandoneon. This is an instrument that many people have never actually seen played but would definitely have heard if they listened to any tango music. Basically, the bandoneon is a smaller version of an accordion or concertina but with a critical difference: each button has a different pitch depending on whether you are pulling or pushing the bellows. This adds an additional degree of difficulty, although you certainly could not tell that from Del Curto's mesmerizing performance. The sound is more focused than an accordion and cuts through even when the rest of the band is at full volume. Like a banjo being the definitive voice in bluegrass and some other American music, the bandoneon makes the tango sound authentic, and in this concert we heard a master of this instrument.
Those even minimally aware of the tango as a dance know it can be quite sultry and sensual, often with a slight wisp of sadness. This very generous program featured fifteen selections, all but three either composed or arranged by Pablo Ziegler. The wide range of emotions that came through was quite astounding. From the dazzling opener, "Once Again Milonga," to the heart-wrenching sadness of "Bajo Cero," Ziegler was quickly able to dispel any misconception that Nuevo tango was rhythmically repetitive or lacking variety, subtlety, or color. Ziegler, playing without a score most of the evening, was the spokesperson for the group, although it was hard to understand him at times. His compositions display a thorough schooling in both standard classical music and jazz, and he has the ability to join the elements of both to what is the greatest indigenous music of his homeland.
Ziegler, for whatever reason – despite his numerous rewards, concerts, recordings and accolades – still has not garnered the universal recognition and fame that Piazzolla achieved during his lifetime and after. Ziegler still speaks fondly of Astor Piazzolla as his mentor and friend, and he played three selections by him. The supreme standout was "Fuga y Misterio." Yes, it's a fugue but with a subject like no other. Long and unnervingly complex and fast, you'd have thought the piano would never finish its astounding proclamation, but the cello finally answered with remarkable technical finesse. It continued on and on, unraveling contrapuntal delicacies at a dizzying pace until you couldn't help but imagine Old Bach dancing in Buenos Aires.
This is another example of musicians of which – but for the inventive and far-reaching programming of Duke Performances – we'd probably be completely unaware. It was a revelatory musical experience, and it is highly recommended that anyone take the plunge and attend a Pabo Ziegler concert – if you're fortunate enough to get that opportunity.