Monday, October 21, 2013

Bulletins From BA #18

Bulletins From BA #18
21 octubre 2013

¡Hola! there… Rodger French here.

Like any great city, Buenos Aires offers innumerable opportunities to hear live music. And although we don’t make the same effort to get out and listen as we once did (age and gravity do take their toll), from time to time A.J. and I flag a taxi and venture forth, usually to some interesting older theatre with horrible seats, to better inform our cultural outlook. Here are two examples for your consideration.

I - “Tango en Concierto”
Orquesta Nacional de Música Argentina “Juan de Dios Filiberto”

From the program notes (my translation): “In 1932, the composer Juan de Dios Filiberto founded the ‘Orquesta Porteña’ which in 1948, under the high patronage to the arts made ​​by the government of General Juan Domingo Peron, passed into the orbit of the National State.

Today Orquesta Nacional de Música Argentina ‘Juan de Dios Filiberto’ continues with its mission: to ‘develop, prioritize and promote music in all its Argentine manifestations with the goal to increase and form a national consciousness among the people’.”

I heard about this concert via Facebook from Sergio Rivas, an Argentine contrabass player with whom a friend of mine (with whom I use to play) has studied tango. The program included three selections by the orquesta, a “Trípitico para Contrabajo y Orquesta” con Solista Sergio Rivas, and several pieces featuring Trio (Martinez) 2+ Lifschitz. (Flute, guitar, bass, drums.)

It was a great program. Sergio is a wonderful bassist, the Trio is simply terrific, and the Orquesta… well, this was my first opportunity to listen to a group of más o menos 40 excellent musicians play tango. It was a wicked impressive experience. And, as is customary, the audience of porteños did not hesitate to make their enthusiasm known.

II - “Treemonisha” de Scott Joplin (Estreno en Argentina)
OID Opera (

I have in my musical back pocket several Ragtime compositions by Scott Joplin. Each is a small jewel and I am grateful that they translate so well from the original piano scores to the accordion. Joplin is a justifiably esteemed composer who passed, at the age of 49, much too soon.

That said, I must admit that I know next to nothing about “Treemonisha” (, Joplin’s grand operatic work, which was never properly produced during his lifetime. So, props to OID Opera for giving it a go and premiering it in Argentina. My experience of the evening was, unfortunately, less than satisfactory.

The major problem was that the 19-piece orchestra had serious intonation issues that could not readily be ignored. The singers were good, although the balance with the orchestra was hit-or-miss. The libretto, sung in English, was largely unintelligible, a not unexpected state of affairs in operatic productions. There were supertitles, of course. En español. Oh well, what can you do?

“Treemonisha” was meant to be performed by African-Americans, which is pretty tricky in Argentina, due to a severe scarcity of opera singers of African descent. So, members of the cast wore “conventional theatrical blackface,” à la Placido Domingo portraying Otello. The effect was discomfiting, particularly for those of us who are somewhat schooled on the history of blackface in America and its racist connotations.

[Sidebar: Can’t recall if I’ve recommended this before, but a rather thorough and strangely entertaining overview of blackface and minstrelsy is afforded in the film “Bamboozled,” directed by Spike Lee. Dude did his research.]

Finally, the venue, Teatro Empire (designed in Art Deco mode as a pretty cool hybrid of space ship and bee hive), was built in 1934. And still has THE ORIGINAL SEATS. From the moment we sat down, we experienced acute distress, a vexation that would have made it difficult to enjoy even a great performance, never mind a problematic one. Oh, bueno, ¿qué puedes hacer?



Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Bulletins From BA #17

Bulletins From BA #17
09 octubre 2013

¡Hola! there… Rodger French here.

[Noted in Passing - Today is John Lennon’s 73rd birthday.]

Unbelievably, it’s been two months since the last Bulletin. I would apologize for flagrant dereliction of duty as correspondent, but I simply haven’t had much to report, certainly nothing worth your precious reading time. But in the interests of inter-hemispheric communication and not being totally forgotten (“He’s still in Buenos Aires? Really?”), here goes.

It took long enough, but Anne and I finally made it to an actual milonga, a place where normal people go to dance tango and participate in its peculiar rituals. We had guests in from the States, so we took them to El Niño Bien, a venerable milonga held weekly in a local community center and recommended to us by our friends Cherie and Ruben, who are professional tango instructors. What really sealed the deal was the fact that the event started at 7:00 PM, not midnight, as is the norm.

As you might expect, it was an older crowd that packed the place and filled the capacious dance floor. A.J. and I demurred on actually dancing (I am fearless when it comes to playing tango on the accordion, but the dance is complex and intimidates the hell out of me.) and spent an absolutely lovely evening drinking champagne, chatting in imperfect español, and watching older tangueros in suave suits dance with well turned-out ladies in fabulous shoes. It was una noche excelente.

Speaking of excellent nights, this past weekend I was invited to perform a short set as part of the celebration for the 70th Anniversary of ARICANA, the Binational Center (BNC) in Rosario, some 300km from Buenos Aires. As compensation, ARICANA agreed to pick up the tab for expenses. So, since shlepping an accordion on a bus is a burdensome proposition (at least), Anne and I contracted with Ricardo, our inestimable go-to tour operator, to hire a remise (private car) and driver (Javier), who took very good care of us. Our hotel was simple, satisfactory, and not far from the event.

The show consisted of myself, students from a local school of musical theatre (complete with tango as well as a delightfully cheesy version of “New York, New York”), and a local chorus that sang, among other things, Negro spirituals in dialect, complete with Spanish accent. (A brief pause while you consider that.)

[Critics Sidebar - The accordion player’s performance was “un gran éxito” (a great success), being described by various astute audience members as "romántico", "emocional" y "sentimental". In Argentina, these are words of high praise indeed.]

Following this epic production, the assemblage was fêted with drinks and a four-course dinner, making for an altogether wonderful soirée. It was an honor to have been included.

News Update - Some of you have inquired about the local effects of the current shutdown of the U.S. government. We are still up and running in Buenos Aires, but many Embassy functions and activities have been curtailed or strictly limited. For the moment, no one has been furloughed, but that will change, should this impasse continue. The shutdown is very bad news.

Culpability for this totally preventable debacle resides, false equivalencies aside, squarely with the GOP Congressional delegation. As a group, they covet power, but function only to impose their will, regardless of logic or consequence. Their sanctimonious disdain for governance, the job they were constitutionally elected to do, is matched only by their documentable incompetence.

Moreover, they are intellectually circumscribed and spiritually malicious. They proclaim their patriotism, but behave like terrorists holding our economy hostage, like bumptious vandals willing, indeed, eager to bring down our entire government. They bring discredit to the United States and I am profoundly embarrassed for my country.

Good luck (buena suerte) to us all.

[Noted in Passing - Today is Sean Lennon’s 38th birthday.]