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Review for Pablo Ziegler’s “Beyond Tango”

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“Beyond Tango,” pianist Pablo Zielger’s 17-song performance, fused the sharp sexiness of tango music with the jaunty improvisation of jazz to create an enlivened and engaging musical experience at the Mondavi Center on Friday.

Zielger began performing classical music at age 14 in his hometown of Buenos Aires, Argentina. In the 1960s, Zielger’s career made the leap to jazz music. Inspired by both classical and jazz compositions, as well as classic tango rhythms, Zielger formed his Quartet for New Tango in 1990.

The Mondavi Center’s 1801-seat Jackson Hall was nearly full for the performance, accommodating all ages of music lovers, from the young family to my left to the college-aged women to my right. The audience’s anticipatory chatter served as a reminder that the night’s performance was one of a just two U.S. tour stops for the performers of “Beyond Tango.”

The performance began in a bare bones fashion, with only Ziegler and fellow pianist Misha Dacić on stage to play dual-piano for opening song “Michelangelo 70.” Tall and thin, Dacić played with grace and precision, fingers tapping away at the keys like a novelist working furiously against a deadline. In contrast, Ziegler greeted the piano like an old friend, playing with warmth and fluidity.

It was as though the two pianos were having a conversation, pausing briefly to let the other chime in. As the song picked up, the performers’ notes became more desperate, cascading over each other to create a rush of emotional harmonies.

By the end of the night, the stage was full with a menagerie of instruments and musicians. Bandoneón (an accordion-like instrument used in tango music), cello, stand-up bass, two violins, viola, bassoon, flute, clarinet and classical drum kit all graced the stage as members of the Chamber Ensemble.

Pieces performed by the full Chamber Ensemble were almost too energizing for a sit-down concert. The heads of audience members were bobbing during the quick and flirtatious “Fuga y Misterio.” A guest appearance from tango dancers ready to interpret the stirring compositions into bodily movement would have been a welcome sight.

Violinst Machiko Ozawa kept the performance’s tension steady with her sharp slices of sound. She stormed through a solo during “Muchacha de Boedo,” channeling an impassioned mother delivering a sharp-tongued reproach to her children: equal parts seething and restrained. The solo was met with applause from audience members so appreciative of Ozawa’s skill they couldn’t hold their enthusiasm until the end of the piece.

When he wasn’t moving his fingers languidly over his instrument’s thick strings like the frantic legs of a daddy long-legs, bass player Pedro Giraudo was delicately waving his bow like a knife through butter to achieve a soft, airy sound.

Héctor Del Curto, the ensemble’s bandoneón player, performed with his whole body, shoulders heaving in his effort to pull the instrument’s layers into the shape of an upside-down “U.” The winding and sustained sound of the bandoneón acted as the glue for many of the night’s tunes, melding the ensemble’s disparate musical expressions into a cohesive unit.

As the stage lighting transformed into a mix of sunny orange and deep purple, Ziegler and the Chamber Ensemble performed the night’s most bittersweet piece, a song called “Nostalgias.” The low reverberation of Jisoo Ok’s cello melded with the slow weep of Girauudo’s bandoneón to conjure feelings of both hope and regret.

But the somber tone didn’t last long as the ensemble made the transition into romper “Milonga en El Viento.”

Arguably the most charming element of the night’s performance was the improvisational percussion executed by both bass and bandoneón players.

During the Chamber Quintet’s performance of “Buenos Aires Report,” Giraudo used an open hand to tap heartily on the side of his hollow instrument and, for added effect, quickly swiped a taught finger across its polished surface to produce crisp, rhythmic punctuation.

Del Curto rounded out Giraudo’s efforts with his own tinnier percussion, produced by rapping his fingertips on the bandoneón’s outer shell. The impromptu percussion signaled the song’s move into a section with a quicker tempo.

Though talented stand-alone musicians, the ensemble seemed to thrive off the energy it created as a group. It was apparent that the ensemble’s members enjoy one another as more than colleagues, and their subtle on-stage interactions imbued the performance with an intimate yet inviting tone.

Ziegler and Giraudo smiled joyfully at one another during particularly lively portions of songs, the accordion and bass player riffed playfully off of one another, and Ziegler presented violinist Ozawa to the audience with the warmth of a proud father.

Though classically inspired, the performance was by no means a rigid affair, thanks in part to Ziegler’s personable addresses to the audience between pieces, during which he joked about song titles and thanked the crowd genuinely for their positive response. Rather than using some maestro-like hand signal to begin a song, Zeigler counted the ensemble off with a simple, rhythmic snap of his fingers and a quickly uttered, “one, two.”

In appreciation of the performers’ good vibes, the audience offered up some warmth of its own in the form of a standing ovation. With Zielger ushering the members to stand closer together, the Chamber Ensemble stood smiling in front of us before rewarding the crowd with a rare encore performance.

In an artist’s statement about “Beyond Tango,” Zielger wrote: ”The music is a kind of emotional portrait of me.” And after witnessing a live Pablo Ziegler performance, one can certainly see what he means.  

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