Grammy-nominated classical violinist Philippe Quint was enjoying a successful if conventional career before the seductive sounds of tango music pulled him in unexpected directions. “The bulk of my season was and still is playing concertos with orchestras. A few years ago I never would have predicted my interests would take me here,” Quint said.

Quint’s career shift started with an unexpected invitation. “I was asked to join a chamber music series in New York, and it was a program focusing on Latin American composers.” One of them was Argentinian tango master Astor Piazzolla. “At that time, of course I knew of his music but had never played it,” Quint recalled. “I was put together with a funky group: bandoneon (the classic tango instrument, it sounds much like an accordion), electric guitar, piano and stand-up bass. I just fell in love with the sound that the group produced.”

The experience lit a creative fire under Quint. “After we completed the concert, I Googled ‘bandoneon’ and ‘New York’ and ‘best Argentina tango players.’ Within a month I started working with most of the people that you will be seeing soon in Orange County.” 

Phillippe Quint’s Quint Quintet plays Piazzolla’s “Libertango” at the Madison Theatre in Long Island in 2014. Performers: Quint, violin, Claudio Ragazzi, guitar, Octavio Brunetti, piano, Pedro Giraudo, Bass, JP Jofre, bandoneon, Line Haddad, dancer and London Hong, dancer.

Quint and the tango quintet he formed, together with a singer and members of the Joffrey Ballet, will present an evening of music, song and dance titled “Astor Piazzolla @ 100: Between Angels & Demons” at the Irvine Barclay Theatre on Wednesday, May 18. The production is being co-presented by the Barclay and the Philharmonic Society of Orange County as part of its Eclectic Orange series.

“We’ve been working on this since 2018 or early 2019,” said Philharmonic Society president Tommy Phillips. “I’d worked with Philippe as a presenter with various orchestras over the years. If he comes to me with an idea for a new project, I listen.”

“Astor Piazzolla @ 100” isn’t Quint’s first foray into the intense exploration of an iconic artist. A previous project gave him some general ideas about how he wanted to shape the show. “I worked on a project about Charlie Chaplin (a 2019 album, ‘Chaplin’s Smile,’ and a subsequent live multimedia tribute to Chaplin’s musical legacy), and that grew into this new format for me. I greatly enjoyed the process of (taking) this biographical journey through the process of musical narration and visuals.”

The Piazzolla project started modestly, but the concept grew steadily more ambitious as Quint and his fellow musicians worked on it. “When we originally started putting this together, it was just supposed to be a concert featuring my tango group. Soon, we were discussing the involvement of some dancers from the Joffrey Ballet and a singer.”

Then the pandemic swept through the world, and every performer’s professional life was placed on hold. But Quint didn’t want to give up on his Piazzolla passion project.

“As the pandemic hit and our plans collapsed, we were discussing with Tommy Phillips what other possibilities we could create. I was told that having a whole quintet on stage is not an option. Then I got a call that Joffrey wouldn’t be able to travel.”

Still, Quint didn’t give up. “I decided to look outside of the box and see if there would be a way to rework the project as a piano-violin duo and have the Joffrey (dancers) record a video in Chicago which I would sync to live during the concert. We were told it was possible, except the dancers wouldn’t be able to have any physical contact.” Quint laughed wryly. “I thought, ‘A ballet with nobody touching, that’s the last straw. We will just have to postpone the whole thing.’”

The delay allowed Quint to flesh out the project even further. The result is more multifaceted than he originally imagined, even though the 100th anniversary of Piazzolla’s birth – the hook that inspired the concept – was 2021.

“I’m absolutely thrilled about what we ended up with. We will have the quintet and the premiere of a new choreography performed by members of the Joffrey. And there’s a poem I commissioned, and a singer to sing a few songs from Piazzolla’s only opera” (María de Buenos Aires, which premiered in 1968). 

A Fight Between Devils and Angels

Piazzolla’s music has become immensely popular in the three decades since his death at 71 in 1992. Choreographers and moviemakers are drawn to its mysterious, driving melodies and propulsive rhythms. But Quint thinks most people don’t appreciate the complexities and contradictions of a composer and performer who mastered many forms and blazed important new trails. Like all iconoclasts, he stepped on a few toes.

Astor Piazzolla performs “Adiós Nonino” at the Montreal Jazz Festival, Montreal, Canada on July 4, 1984. Performers: Piazzolla, bandoneon, Oscar Lopez Ruiz, guitar, Fernando Suarez Paz, violin, Pablo Ziegler, piano and Hector Console, bass.

“We know him as a king of tango (but) during his lifetime in Argentina he was called the tango killer. It was very serious. In his biography, Piazzolla said he was assaulted on the street because people in Argentina felt he was destroying tango – he was taking liberties. This is a fascinating part of his story.”

Piazzolla studied classical music with some of the most important artists of his time, including Argentinian composer Alberto Ginastera and French master teacher Nadia Boulanger. Quint thinks their influence is crucial to our understanding of Piazzolla’s music. So were his years in New York, where he lived with his family from 1925 to 1936. “Growing up in New York he played at Jewish weddings and was exposed to a lot of popular music of the time, especially jazz.”

Those influences and more can be heard in Piazzolla’s music, Quint believes, and he tried to display that stylistic diversity in the music he chose for his evening-length Piazzolla homage.

Astor Piazzolla @ 100: ‘Between Angels & Demons’

Philippe Quint, Quint Quintet and members of Joffrey Ballet

When: Wednesday, May 18 at 7 p.m.
Where: Irvine Barclay Theatre, 4242 Campus Drive, Irvine
Tickets: $30-$85
Information: 949-854-4646 or thebarclay.org

“You can hear very clear influences – everything from Duke Ellington, whose performances he attended at the Harlem jazz clubs, to Ginastera, Bartok and Stravinsky. It created in him the most fascinating hybrid. I tried to trace his transformation from being this kid playing tango music in nightclubs to one of the great composers of the 20th century.”

Quint made a conscious decision not to include tango dancing in the choreographic part of the show.

“I feel that music is always the main protagonist of the story. You can’t avoid having dancers in a show like this, but I specifically wanted to have classical ballet dancers, not tango dancers.” Choreographer Nicolas Blanc created a ballet for three dancers based on some of Piazzolla’s late works. “The music (for the dance) is very substantial and contemporary,” Quint said. “It begins with ‘Oblivion,’ which he wrote for a film. Then it goes into ‘The History of Tango,’ which is very Bartok-like. Then we finish with the ‘Concierto para Quinteto,’ one of his late works.”

The subtitle for the evening, “Between Angels & Demons,” comes from Piazzolla himself, Quint said. 

“Piazzolla said, ‘My life was always a fight between devils and angels.’ I think his music certainly reflects that. I’m thrilled to dig into the nitty gritty details and to see where these contrasting influences came from. Focusing on these details makes the journey we take the audience through much more exciting and satisfying.”

“Astor Piazzolla @ 100” captures the spirit of the Philharmonic Society’s Eclectic Orange series, Phillips said. “From the beginning, (Eclectic Orange) had a subtitle: ‘A festival of music and ideas.’ That’s exactly what this show is. The cherry on top, I think, is bringing in the dancers from the Joffrey Ballet. We aim to bridge different arts and media with our Eclectic events, and this is the perfect marriage of them all.”

Paul Hodgins is the founding editor of Arts & Culture at Voice of OC. He can be reached at phodgins@voiceofoc.org.


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