Jason Vieaux with Julien Labro CICGF Recital: Sunday, June 1, 2014 at 7:30pm, Cleveland Institute of Music

Classical music and night club tunes have always made strange bedfellows. One is the polite music we gladly take home and introduce to our parents. The other is the gritty stuff that indulges our wilder side. And yet the two often cross-pollinate. Mixed well, they strengthen each other. The vivid immediacy of popular music reinvigorates what might otherwise lapse into ivory tower insolation—the muscular discipline of classical adds backbone to what might have been self-indulgent treacle. The best classical composers have always known this. Haydn frequently highlighted rustic dance tunes in his symphonies. Beethoven, fulfilling the commission of a Russian prince, slipped two Russian folk songs into his Razumovsky Quartets. Brahms clothed drinking songs in orchestral garb. Even Bach, who seems fated to be remembered more as a marble bust than a man, worked into his monumental Goldberg Variations an unassuming ditty whose lyrics complained of a mother who cooked too many cabbages and beets. Further, perhaps no two instruments could be better suited to a program melding pop and classical than the bandoneon and guitar. Both have suffered condescension from the classical cognoscenti. Both have climbed their way past such condescension by proving themselves capable of the highest quality.

With one exception, today’s program sets aside the stuffy tuxedo for something more informal. Just remind yourself that you’re in a classical conservatory, so you won’t forget yourself and try to order a brew.

Astor Pantaleón Piazzolla (1921-1992) lived a life of controversy. Setting himself to invigorate the tango scene in Argentina, he soon found himself at war with traditionalists. Reported La Mancha newspaper in 1961: “Piazzolla has dared to defy a traditional establishment greater than the state, greater than the gaucho, greater than soccer. He has dared to challenge the tango.” Taxi drivers would refuse to pick him up, he and members of his band received death threats, and fist fights were common. Regarding the latter, Piazzolla probably could take care of himself. He had boxed as a youth, and once sparred with Jake La Motta. So he was acquainted with the seamy side of life. Said guitarist Horacio Malvinino, who played many years with Piazzolla: “Just as jazz musicians must swing, tango has to have dirtiness. Tango musicians have to be dirty in their souls.” But paradoxically, Piazzolla also had a refined streak. Even in his youth he’d been attracted to Bach. He studied with Alberto Ginastera and Nadia Boulanger. Ironically it was Boulanger who convinced him that his true path lay in tango. A 1947 article perceptively summed up the dichotomy that was Piazzolla: “It is his fate to reconcile opposites, as we can see, which explains how he can offer us the most stubborn tango hits of the old days with chords that seem almost Stravinskian.”

Composed in 1986 for flute and guitar, Histoire du Tango is a musical exercise in time travel. Its four movements describe the evolution of Argentine tango through the twentieth century. Bordel 1900 harks back to the sordid beginnings of tango in the brothels of Buenos Aires—it’s modeled on the precursors of tango: the milonga and habanera. The last movement, Concert d’aujourd’hui, takes us forward to the tango as Piazzolla reimagined it. Piazzolla wrote Escualo (1979) for his friend violinist Fernando Suarez Paz, who played in Piazzolla’s band for many years. The title translates to “shark.”

Composer, conductor, arranger, and performer Radamés Gnattali (1906–1988) was a prominent figure in the history of 20th century Brazilian music. Moving comfortably between many genres, he often blurred the lines between popular and classical music. Journalist Luiz Paulo Horta wrote of him: “Radamés’ eclecticism might annoy a purist. But those with no foregone conclusions and open ears will easily find out a fabulous craftsman, an amazing melody inventor, and an eternal experimenter who fascinates the new generations with its own young spirit.” Suite Retratos began as an arrangement for mandolin and string orchestra. Gnattali wrote it for mandolin player Jacob Pick Bittencourt, who recorded it in 1964. The four movements feature the names of Pixinguinha, Ernesto Nazareth, Anacleto de Medeiros, and Chiquinha Gonzaga—all of them pioneers of the Brazilian choro. Since then, this suite has proven irresistible to guitarists, and is often performed in a transcription for two guitars.

Pat Metheny (b. 1954) is an American guitarist whose contributions to jazz are legion. He also has an edge to him—when a popular new age saxophonist some years ago blithely recorded himself noodling over jazz legend Louis Armstrong, Metheny’s blistering response had jazz fans cheering. But for the most part, Metheny goes his own way: “To me, the world is increasingly fragmented by all of these cultural and political designations. But music is music, and music will always be music, the same way math will always be math. You can go to the other side of the universe and two plus two will always be two plus two. The currency of that really deep fundamental truth is the currency I’m trading in and that I live in.” Antonia is from Metheny’s 1992 album “Secret Story.” Considered one of his most ambitious efforts—one admirer called it “the War and Peace of jazz”—it won the Grammy for best jazz album.

Cuban guitarist and composer Leo Brouwer (b. 1939) might seem the odd man out in today’s program. His 1958 Tres danzas concertantes for guitar and orchestra (composed when he was just 19) has no overt popular influence. But it’s unlikely Brouwer himself would feel out of place. As an arranger, he transcribed Scott Joplin’s The Entertainer and Elite Syncopations for solo guitar. He’s also a Beatles fan, and has arranged seven of their songs for guitar. Indeed, Brouwer puts little stock in a separation between classical and pop: “Popular can be Mahler or Brahms or Gismonti or Pat Metheny. The problems that are more difficult to define in this dichotomy are the problems of quality, and we are not going to decide that. It is determined by taste, which is built, manipulated, and deformed. History itself will determine those problems.”

Author Ezra Pound once wrote that music begins to atrophy when it departs too far from the dance. But maybe Duke Ellington said it better: “It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing.” When classical and popular meet in the right way, they swing—with just a touch of class.


About the Author: With over 30 years teaching experience, Tom Poore has taught at the North Carolina School of the Arts Community Music Center and the Cleveland Institute of Music Preparatory Department. His background in teaching children includes Suzuki training, outreach programs through the Broadway School of Music and Passport Program, and the Cleveland Public Schools Arts in Summer Education Program. Tom and his students have performed for WCPN radio and WVIZ television. Former students of his have gone on to earn scholarships and degrees from the Cleveland Institute of Music, the Peabody Conservatory of Johns Hopkins University, The Juilliard School of Music, and others. Tom earned his bachelor’s degree at the North Carolina School of the Arts, where he studied with Aaron Shearer, and master’s degree at the Cleveland Institute of Music, where he studied with John Holmquist. He was also the editor for Aaron Shearer’s three volume “Learning the Classic Guitar,” published by Mel Bay. Currently he teaches in the greater Cleveland area at the Solon Center for the Arts, Western Reserve School of Music, Avon School of Music, and from his home in South Euclid.