Barston Tangos with the WSO
By Lily Olason
This afternoon, the Whatcom Symphony Orchestra treated patrons to another fantastic performance. Dedicated to the Spanish dance, Viva el Tango tapped influences from across the globe to produce one lively, floor-stomping, rip-roaring show.
If there’s any effective way to introduce tango, it might just be Georges Bizet. Though French, his “Danse Bohème” from Carmen Suite No. 2 is fully Spanish. As Ryan Dudenbostel details in the program notes, Bizet based his opera Carmen on Prosper Merimee’s novella of the same name, which follows this plot: a “Spanish gypsy girl who wins the affections of a naïve young solider, only to betray him in favor of a glamorous bullfighter.” Led by Assistant Conductor Takuya Nishiwaki, the piece's pizzicato strings and a hushed flute opened to a rousing whole, where the full complement of the orchestra filled to the back of the hall. A blazing trumpet flooded over the steadily rising ensemble, crescendoing to a flaring, vibrating, mountainous height, again reminding us that the Orchestra indeed has its chops. It all ended with an energetic flourish, the perfect segue to a featured soloist.
After hefty applause, violinist Elisa Barston took the stage to play us one of the most vibrant pieces of the modern tango genre—Astor Piazzolla’s harmonic Cuatro Estaciones Porteñeas (Four Seasons of Buenos Aires). The piece is a gauzy wave of rhythm and light, swelling and shimmering in homage to the seasons, and Barston was the perfect pick to play it—her tone is nothing short of brilliant. Her glissandos were clean and crisp, the edge of the neck played with knifelike precision. She went from breezy jazz licks to the classically demanding like cake, let the high highs ring like bells and the low lows melt into the churning wholeness of the orchestra with unbroken consistency. Even from the safety of the seats, this piece didn’t look easy—in addition to the Django Reinhardt-esque passages and traditional tango fare, composer Leonid Desyatnikov arranged this version with sprinkles of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons folded throughout. Though cleverly, Dudenbostel notes, Desyatnikov placed Vivaldi’s “winter” in Piazzolla’s “summer” and vice-versa, in reference to the Southern Hemisphere’s inverted seasons. If that’s not enough of a challenge, the score was so faithfully executed Barston's bow dripped sunshine and icicles, depending on the movement.
To our delight, Barston's encore was “Largo” from Vivaldi’s Seasons, and it was just as pretty as the first.
After intermission, Maestro Attar briefed us on the following pieces. “Four Dances” from Estancia tells the tale of Argentinian romance—a city boy dances his way to the heart of a country girl, beating out other suitors in a town-wide competition. That energy is reflected in the work, as a stomping opening movement swells continuously and ends in burst of sound and light. The orchestra navigated the challenging score with ease, and kept a handle on its fearless, powerful passages to make something truly wonderful.
For the finale, Maestro Attar selected Capriccio Espagnol, by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov. Though a Russian composer, Rimsky-Korsakov wrote a truly Spanish number. Sown in both Spanish and Russian soil, the emerging work weaves tango themes with snippets of traditional Russian melodies to make an organic, remarkable beauty. Several instruments are given solos, including clarinet, horn, flute, violin, harp, and trumpet, perhaps also paying tribute to the collaborative nature of the work’s origins.
Attar joked that no composer on this afternoon’s bill is actually from Spain, but rather the show looks at Spain through other’s eyes. This is a poignant description. The tango is a sweet and romantic and beautiful thing, and the Symphony did it justice.
Come watch the WSO’s 40th Season finale on June 5th, featuring pianist Alessio Bax. Find more info and tickets here.