What are the coolest things to happen to classical music during my 35 year tenure at New England Public Radio? Let's see — there's the increased acceptance of ideas and instruments previously on the outside, the exploration of new vernaculars, the absorption of composers from hitherto unexplored musical regions and realms, and the general loosening of rigid formality and classical/non-classical boundaries. Put 'em all together and what do you get? Astor!
That, of course, would be Astor Piazzolla, who was born in Mar del Plata, Argentina 96 years ago today. A prodigy on the bandoneón, the German accordion that's been for a century a mainstay of tango bands, Piazzolla was a working tanguero from his teens, But also from the start, the young Piazzolla explored musical ideas beyond the bounds of traditional tango composers such as Aníbal Troilo and Carlos Gardel. Following studes with Argentine composer Alberto Ginastera and French pedagogue Nadia Boulanger, and encounters with American jazz, Piazzolla created a new musical synthesis known as tango neuvo — a music with the earthy urgency of tango, the sophistication of classical and the improvisatory freedom of jazz. Controversial at first, Piazzolla is now honored as the greatest musical figure in tango music. And the list of classical musicians attracted to his wonderful music, starting with Gidon Kremer, Sérgio & Odair Assad, Kronos, Yo-Yo Ma and Emanuel Ax, grows daily.
There are those composers and performers who create impressive work-lists and discographies. And then there are those few who create entirely original worlds of music, complete with their own flora, fauna, geographies, geologies and atmosphere. You can approach these worlds from all directions, yet always end up knowing exactly where you are. J. S. Bach was one. Duke Ellington was another. And for me, Astor Piazzolla belongs on that list. So yes, let me say that the addition of Astor Piazzolla's music to the repertoire is very high on the list of the coolest things to happen to classical music during the last 35 years. Tune in Monday for several visits to Astor's world.