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Making It There:
Piazzolla's New York Concerts1
With Astor Piazzolla the question was never one of cultural identity; his music was always synonymous with the bandoneon, tango, Lunfardo, the world of the porteño and everything typical of Buenos Aires.2 Billed as "the Argentine boy wonder of the bandoneon" for his first documented public performance, simply one act in a presentation entitled "An Evening in Argentina" by the Grupo Inter-Americano (29 December 1932, Roerich Hall, Riverside Drive and 103rd Street, New York),3 he was hailed fifty-five years later as "the brilliant Argentine composer [who] took tango and moved it away from its dance origins into an art context, infusing it with jazz and classical strains to develop an utterly distinctive compositional language."4 For Piazzolla the issue was rather one of cultural approbation. While the tango purists ridiculed the eclectic nature of his music, he steadfastly maintained that his work was respected, amused that it was these very "jokers" who helped create his reputation.5 But for a composer ever-mindful that he was for the tango what Bartók and Stravinsky had been for their respective folk musics, Piazzolla's belated endorsement by critics within the musical mainstream—especially in New York—was inexplicable. For the critics, his "utterly distinctive compositional language," as versatile as it was, occasioned a taxonomic crisis, one against which they chafed, but one that his fans relished: they invariably came back for more.
The problem lay deep within Piazzolla's compositional rhetoric. Even in the 1950s many perceived that he was burning his artistic candle at both ends: while the virtuoso-executant made his living with an instrument as proscribed as the bandoneon, an instrument that gave voice to a discrete socio-economic and artistic milieu, the composer espoused a broader aesthetic, prolifically composing "art music" under the tutelage of Alberto Ginastera. Only after study with Nadia Boulanger (1954–55), and to her [End Page 57] credit, at her behest, did Piazzolla seek a synthesis of what many saw as two irreconcilable musical spheres, the tango and concert halls, identifying the result as "chamber music."6 Even though the Piazzolla oeuvre runs the gamut from opera and film scores (for example, María de Buenos Aires and Tangos-L'Exil De Gardel, respectively) to works for solo instruments (for example, the 6 Études Tanguistiques pour Flûte), he is best remembered these days for that extensive catalog of compositions specifically for bandoneon virtuoso—that is, himself—and small ensemble.
Piazzolla's critical reception is an enormous topic because it questions much in the way of market and cultural threshold. So why, since it is so far-reaching, should we focus merely on his New York concerts? Primarily because it affords us an excellent sample; he performed in New York more often than in any other city in the United States. As strange as this may sound, Don Heckman's 1989 tract in the Los Angeles Times was written primarily to advertise his debut there: Piazzolla was then sixty-seven years old and only lived another three years.7 His New York appearances epitomize the difficulties he experienced with the media, whether he was totally ignored or poetically lauded. Moreover, we cannot overestimate the importance of this city in his creative consciousness: during his famous Central Park concert, 6 September 1987, he told 4,000 people just how much the city meant to him, remarks that are forever vibrant on CD as "Astor's Speech."8 Later, when dictating his memoirs, he went even further, crediting New York as his compositional beacon, the city that "gave him the courage to point the boat in the right direction" (Gorin 2001, 75). While his heart may have always remained in Buenos Aires, he knew the cachet of a New York critical success, something that, as we shall see, eluded him for many years. In short, his New York concerts not only illustrate the dilemma that he...