Accordionist Ksenija Sidorova tells us all about the life and music of tango extraordinaire, Astor Piazzolla
RD: What are some of the most crucial things we should know about Astor Piazzolla?
Piazzolla with Horacio Ferrer
KS: Piazzolla’s music is the night music of Buenos Aires, Argentina. His life wasn't an easy one, which is true for many composers. He only started garnering acclaim towards the end of his life, even more so after his death. He would get beaten up on the streets for trying to create this new type of tango for concert halls, Tango Nuevo. People didn't appreciate it at first because they were ardent about keeping the tango as it was—people don’t normally like change.
But Piazzolla was such a strong character and very firm in his opinion; he created something that’s now not only played in the nightclubs of Buenos Aires and so on, but is also played at the greatest concert halls by the biggest superstars of both classical and pop music worlds. His tunes have also been incorporated into many movie soundtrack.
I admire this aspect of his personality and the fact that he had the courage to go to Paris and study classical music under Nadia Boulanger who famously made him into who he is and gave him this kind of push that he needed.
Nadia Boulanger with Igor Stravinsky
He originally came to her with string quartets, symphonies and so on, and she looked at the whole stack and said, “It’s all very good, but I don't see anything special, I don't see you in it.” And then she asked him, “What is your instrument? What is it that you do?” So, he told her that he plays the bandoneon and tango, and for the next lesson, she asked him to bring it with him. After he showed her the actual type of thing that he did, she said, “Now this is you and this is your voice and I want you to be that.” It's an inspiring story that I think would ring true for many people.
RD: He was the son of Italian immigrants who spent most of his childhood in Manhattan—does that make his connection to Argentine tango a peculiar one?
KS: Yes. His tango is very broad. It’s not inspired by some one specific folk tradition—it’s a fusion of many things.
He was also touring together with Carlos Gardel who at the time was a superstar in Argentina and beyond. So, he invited Piazzolla when he was still very young to join him on tour, and therefore, Piazzolla was exposed to a broad range of tango which was broadcasted all over the world. And Argentina, of course, has always been full of international people—estrangheros, which means foreigners.
RD: What is it like performing Piazzolla’s music? Do you need to get into any specific mindset?
KS: No specific mindset, it’s just that when I play his music, it feels very comfortable for me. It's a space where you can create because a lot of his music wasn’t written out in all the notes and grace notes and all that kind of improvisational stuff.
So, I really enjoy being in it and creating something new every time that’s a little bit different. I wouldn't necessarily call it jazz, but there’s an element of that. I am not a jazz player, but all of us like to add some of our own things, and this is the kind of world which I feel confident in.
So it speaks to me; I know it speaks to many, but I really enjoy it. It's a pure joy especially when it comes to playing chamber music. I think Piazzolla’s music is great for solos, but because of all the different tunes that are contained within his music, it's much more fun to share them and have those little dialogues that you have when you're in a chamber group, even if it's just two people, it's already much more interesting.
RD: Where do you recommend starting with Piazzolla?
KS: I think a lot of people know Libertango. Grace Jones famously covered it, so it’s always good to start with something iconic. Same goes for Adios Nonino, which was dedicated to his late father; and Oblivion. These are the three best-known pieces that people play and hear all the time.
And then, slowly, you can get into more contemporary works of his because some of them are quite edgy. For example, Concierto para Bandoneon, which is written in a very classical manner. It's also referred to as Aconcagua. Piazzolla didn't call it that himself, it was someone else who referred to this piece as being the pinnacle of his composition career because Aconcagua is the highest mountain in South America.
RD: Are there any interesting stories around any of his compositions?
KS: There is an interesting story about Le Grand Tango, for example, which was originally written for piano and cello. He devoted this piece to [famous cellist and conductor] Rostropovich who, upon receiving the score, put it in his desk and didn't look at it for many years until he heard it being played by someone else. He just kind of ignored it. Piazzolla sent it to him out of admiration and dedicated it to him, but it was premiered by someone else and was subsequently played by Rostropovich as well.
RD: What’s Piazzolla’s influence on tango and its future?
KS: I think he is and will remain a milestone in this timeline as somebody who tried to recreate and rewrite something and, as a result, he created a new genre, which is Tango Nuevo. So, nowadays when we begin with traditional tango, we will inevitably pass by the Tango Nuevo but I don't know how it will be reborn in the future.
All I know is that Piazzolla was an extremely influential composer, he’s the first name that’ll pop into your head if you hear someone talking about tango. I am sure that he’s influenced many and will continue to do so.
Ksenija Sidorova is the leading ambassador for the classical accordion. Her repertoire spans from Bach to Piazzolla, from Efrem Podgaits and Václav Trojan to Erkki-Sven Tüür and George Bizet, as well as two new accordion concertos composed especially for her
Ksenija is an artist with HarrisonParrott, and performed this piece as a celebration of their 50th anniversary, which takes place this year
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