Serenata of Santa Fe billed its Sept. 28 concert, Latin Sunset, as a “special” event, without explaining why. It turned out that it wasn’t just the unusual appearance of tango dancers with the small cadre of musicians. Instead, the out-of-the-ordinary element seems to have been the collaboration between community artists and Serenata.
Then perhaps it would better have been called a pro-am event, to borrow a term from the sports world, in which some of their high-caliber regular players performed alongside less-skilled colleagues, including student dancers, with variable results.
The appealing program consisted of 13 mostly tango-related pieces, ranging from early 20th-century composers Manuel de Falla and Miguel Matamoros through mid-century masters Astor Piazzolla and Violeta Parra. Also included were several composers active today, including three women: Hindi Zahra, Yasmin Levy, and Loreena McKennitt.
Tangos were originally outsiders’ music, developing in the 19th-century barrios around Buenos Aires, Argentina, which housed a marginalized immigrant population of Africans, Cubans, Spaniards, Italians, and eastern Europeans. The male dancer’s cock-of-the-walk attitude originally came from a barrio antihero, the compadrito, who viewed himself as an urban version of the gaucho.
Two sections from Piazzolla’s four-part Histoire du Tango (History of Tango) — “Café 1930” and “Nightclub 1960” — provided the most substantial musical satisfaction. Both sections — and the entire evening — benefitted greatly from violinist David Felberg’s playing, which was secure, rhythmically strong without feeling mechanical, and highly soulful. “Nightclub 1960” reflected the more experimental nature of nuevo tango in some unusual violin sonorities, including a scratchy, electronic-sounding technique known as lisa, a Spanish term that means playing on the fabric that wraps the very bottom of the strings. Guitarist Martin Ly didn’t display the same level of expertise, focusing more on simply playing the notes than on shaping the music, and generating a few too many squeaks, buzzes, and finger slips in the process.
The Dance Station dancers, as they were billed in the program, proved to be three teachers and eight of their students. Their performances ranged from amateurishly earnest to commendable. Teachers Mary Miller and Lawrence Black were especially impressive in Falla’s “Asturiana,” a setting of a folk song from northern Spain. Their fluid lines and sense of dramatic development were effortlessly maintained throughout the choreography, blending balletic and ballroom styles that were matched by Dana Winograd’s rich, warm cello playing.
The evening’s biggest misstep was a case of vocal miscasting. Gail Springer is a light lyric soprano who fared best in Osvaldo Golijov’s “Suéltate las Cintas” (“Untie Your Ribbons”), an intimate, haunting setting of an Andalusian folk poem of love about to be fulfilled. Otherwise, her temperament and vocal tone were far removed from the emotional intensity and storytelling capacity needed for this repertory.
Serenata of Santa Fe has been exploring the tango this year. Its Red Tango program in May was performed, somewhat incongruously, in a church. Working in the Dance Station studio gave the group the opportunity to suggest a nightclub atmosphere through the addition of some café tables and an offering of light food during the intermission, which created a convivial atmosphere with conversations between patrons and performers.
It wasn’t clear whether Latin Sunset was the beginning of an initiative to work with community groups and amateur performers on collaborative programs. It’s a laudable concept, but it needs to be more clearly communicated in the organization’s marketing so that attendees arrive with appropriately calibrated expectations. — Mark Tiarks