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Astor Piazzolla was born in Argentina, but his family moved to New York when he was just three; he spent his younger days in the Italian neighborhoods of New York City, where he learned to play the bandoneón, the button accordion which is an essential component of a tango orchestra. After returning to Buenos Aires in 1937, and receiving a formal music education (which included studies with Alberto Ginastera), Piazzolla composed serious works. In 1954 he went to Paris to become a student of the celebrated Nadia Boulanger, mentor to many 20th-century composers (Elliott Carter, Aaron Copland, Walter Piston, Virgil Thomson, among others). After having seen some less-than-inspired works from Piazzolla, Boulanger asked him what kind of music he truly loved to write. He played one of his tangos for her, prompting her to say that this was the music he should be writing - the music from his heart and not from his head. After a year, he returned to Buenos Aires and devoted himself to the tango. He formed his own ensemble, the Octeto Buenos Aires, to play his music, which before long became known as Nuevo Tango - the New Tango.
Largely as a result of Piazzolla's success, the tango itself is as popular now as at anytime in history. Originally dance music from the bordellos of Buenos Aires, the music is beloved not only as accompaniment to the sensuous dance, but also as serious music for the concert hall. Piazzolla, especially in the later years of his career, was hugely successful in crossing over the boundaries which traditionally separated "popular" and "classical" music. These were boundaries he himself had blurred. The New Tango has caught the fancy of musicians as diverse as Gidon Kremer, Yo-Yo Ma, Emanuel Ax, and the Kronos Quartet.
In 1988, Piazzolla's Four, for Tango, written for the Kronos musicians, made its debut on a Nonesuch CD. Before long, another work, Five Tango Sensations, incorporating Piazzolla's own instrument - the bandoneón - continued the collaboration. The earlier, single-movement work artfully incorporates advanced playing techniques to introduce some decidedly percussive elements into the mix. Even without the characteristic sound of the bandoneón, the sensuous mood is evoked instantly by the sophisticated rhythmic patterns which stamp the music with the composer's signature. Much more than just erotic tango, this dissonant and insidious dance recalls the sardonic humor of Prokofiev's music for his Cinderella ballet.
-- Dennis Bade is the L.A. Philharmonic's Associate Director of Publications.