This past evening in the comfortable, old-world auditorium at the Consulate of Argentina in midtown, Mirian Conti played the first ever North American concert devoted exclusively to the solo piano music of Lalo Schifrin. It could have been a world premiere, although the now 85-year-old Argentine composer has undoubtedly played at least a few solo shows of his own somewhere in the world. Either way, Conti made history with this revelatory performance, especially considering that she was responsible for getting Schifrin to write most of the music.
While Schifrin is no stranger to fans of film scores, he isn’t known as a composer of solo piano works. Long story short: Conti suggested he come up with enough new material or new arrangements for a solo show, and he did. And her dynamic, kinetic, mutable approach to the music did justice to the composer’s ruggedly individualistic blend of neoromanticism, jazz, nuevo tango and vast cinematic themes.
“Other than Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, this is it,” Conti grinned, closing the bill with the world premiere of Schifrin’s solo piano arrangement of the Mission Impossible theme. Tens of thousands of bands and orchestras have played that tune, and kids have been playing probably more than one simplified piano arrangement since 1973. Perhaps ironically, Conti’s boisterous, irrepressibly hard-hitting version was the key to the entire concert. Consider: the theme opens with a hammering, syncopated blues riff, but expands to lots of unexpected chromatics, a mashup of blues, jazz, tango and hints of Debussy.
So it was no surprise that the rest of the show mirrored those influences in the prolific composer’’s work. Although a formidable lefthand attack is hardly the exclusive domain of Argentine pianists, it’s a distinctive trope, and Conti did it justice, opening with the wryly titled Tango Del Atardecer, Schifrin new solo arrangement of the main theme form the 1977 movie Tango.
Conti made the tricky idiomatic shifts between nuevo tango, pre-tango Argentine folk and quasi-Second Viennese School tonalities in Danza De Los Montes look easy. She told the crowd that for a classically-trained musician, the tricky rhythms, syncopation and allusive harmonies of Schifrin’s Jazz Sonata are a real challenge, but she delivered all of that in a strongly dynamic take of its second movement.
She explained that Schifrin had written Tango A Borges as a salute to the writer and his fondness for the tango guardia vieja – surprisingly, he didn’t like nuevo tango. So she made every intense, regal cascade count, up to a wry surprise ending. Her take of Schifrin’s new Suite and Ten Variations was a cleverly referential if hardly reverential capsule history of classical piano from the baroque,through Beethoven to Bartok and then maybe Piazzolla. Conti encored with a brand-new, lushly baroque-tinged lullaby: clearly, Schifrin has plenty of tunes left him him.