Tuesday night at the Naumburg Bandshell in Central Park, violinist Lara St. John teamed up with pianist Pablo Ziegler to celebrate the legendary 1987 concert there by Astor Piazzolla, immortalized on the Central Park Concert album. Joining them were fellow nuevo tango enthusiasts Hector Del Curto – rising with gusto to the challenging role of Piazzolla himself, on bandoneon – plus bassist Andrew Roitstein and guitarist Claudio Ragazzi. This had to be the first time an electric guitar playing through a chorus box has ever been broadcast on WQXR (then again, QXR is part of the cool crowd now, as part of the WNYC family alongside hot internet classical station Q2). Arguably, tango is the definitive noir genre, all angst and raging against the dying of the light. As ripe for parody as some tango is, what makes Piazzolla’s work stand out perhaps more than any other factor is that he never went over the top, preferring a constant, aching sense of suspense that the musicians onstage established quickly and seldom wavered from.
As he recounted to emcee Midge Woolsey, Ziegler was making his first return trip to the bandstand where he’d been on that rainy night 25 years ago, unabased to remind that Piazzolla had chosen him for the band because he liked Ziegler’s ability to improvise. Which is still his forte: whether anchoring the songs with a rich chordal approach or embellishing them with jaunty flourishes or raging torrents, he was fascinating to hear, through a set that mixed songs played the last time he’d been here along with two originals: his insistently longing requiem for Piazzolla, Milonga Del Adios, and his long, lushly shapeshifting Muchacha De Boedo. Like Ziegler, both Del Curto and St. John grew up playing Piazzolla, and it showed. Perhaps so as not to trigger any comparisons to the legendary composer, Del Curto played with a rippling, upbeat energy, for the most part leaving the angst to St. John and Ziegler and occasionally the rest of the band.
They dug deeply into the material right from the start, with a brightly glimmering, hard-hitting version of Michaelangelo, then played up the jazz and ragtime aspects of Muerte Del Angel, then brought the lights down with the dirge Introduccion Del Angel, bandoneon and violin sailing over the murk below. They gave Ragazzi the chance to go deep into the shadows with an echoey, distantly menacing solo introduction to the relatively obscure Mumuki, lept and jumped with abandon throughout the shark-fishing narrative Escualo and mined every ounce of noir urban bustle from the complicated arrangement of Tanguedia. Ziegler opened Piazzolla’s elegy for his father, Adios Nonino, with a long, poignant solo, then brought it up with an aching intensity as it crescendoed out. The final two Piazzolla pieces were an uneasy version of the rather avant garde Lunfardo – another relatively rare number from the 1987 concert – and then a fiery, violin-fueled Libertango. The audience responded thunderously; the group, oblivious to the helicopters circling overhead, rewarded them with a hard-hitting minor-key romp whose title was lost in the applause. Most of the musicians on the bill now reside in New York, so while a second performance of this program probably isn’t in the cards, something similar is bound to happen. Watch this space.