Monday, January 15, 2007


Néstor Marconi and Amelita Baltar at the Escenario Planetario

Sunday, January 14, 2007

Buenos Aires slows down a lot come summertime, with those who are able to heading for the beach resorts along the Atlantic coast of Argentina and Uruguay. I have been out of town for some time myself (thus the lack of recent entries on this site), and knew that things would be quiet when I got back. While away I read an article on that said there were 40% fewer vehicles on the streets, though the usual number of traffic accidents have been happening because people here drive even faster and crazier with the extra space on the road. Despite keeping up with info like this, I was still surprised to see just how calm the city has become following the new year: many stores are closed with their owners on vacation, there is much less movement on the street, and things are a lot quieter at night, at least in my neighborhood. Of course, not everyone leaves. Buenos Aires seems to “shut down” in January the way New York “shuts down” in August. There is a palpable change in the energy of these cities at these times, but the idea that everyone goes out to the Hamptons (or Mar del Plata and Punta del Este) applies only to members of specific social classes. In reality, the vast majority of people stick around and sweat it out. And those people, like me, are looking for something to do.

Thank god, then, for the city government of Buenos Aires, who has put together an impressive roster of free events taking place throughout the city during the summer months to be enjoyed by those who are still around. This concert was a part of that larger series, and featured a set by bandoneonist Marconi and his trio followed by a set featuring singer Baltar and her band. It took place on a large outdoor stage facing the city planetarium, another weirdly interesting building that looks like a spaceship grounded in the hyper-future of the 1970s. It was a lovely setting visually. The breeze carried the scent of eucalyptus trees through the air while groups of herons flew overhead; stars began to appear as it got dark, echoed by the pointillist lighting design on the roof of the planetarium. I even saw a shooting star. Sonically, however, there were some drawbacks. The stage managed to be located quite close to both a busy train track and the municipal airport, the noises from which were quite loud at times and clearly annoyed the musicians. Nothing is perfect, I suppose.

Néstor Marconi is one of the most well-known bandoneón players active today. I have seen him perform several times over the years, and it is always a treat. He is a virtuoso player in the Piazzolla lineage, though he tends to concentrate on the modern tango repertoire of other composers, especially Anibal Troilo, Horacio Salgan, and himself. This approach requires and rewards detail-oriented listening, and there were several quietly breathtaking moments peppered throughout the concert. The musical interactions between Marconi and his bass player were particularly impressive; those two gentlemen can apparently read one another’s minds. At the same time, the sheer scope of the outdoor concert seemed to work against the group. The electric keyboard used by the piano player sounded very tinny at high volume, and was unable to provide the rumbling lower register that this kind of group really needs in order to take you by the collar and shake you, which is what tango is all about. And when the trains went by, forget about any subtlety or even continuity. The musicians seemed to take it in stride, though, and left the crowd enthusiastically applauding if not cheering.

Baltar raised the energy level just by taking the stage. She is famous from her association with the work of Piazzolla and poet Horacio Ferrer (she played Maria in the original production of their “operita” Maria de Buenos Aires and has made the definitive recordings of many of their songs) and she knows how to play the diva role en serio. Just being a singer gave her the upper hand over the technical challenges that nearly overwhelmed Marconi’s group. The faint echo of her voice could be heard reverberating off the distant buildings as she belted out her songs. Not to say that she lacked subtlety. Indeed, while she was clearly focused on the overall dramatic arch of each song, her articulation of individual words and notes was impeccable. Her voice has clearly lost some of the power it once had; she could not sustain some notes as long as she seemed to want to and hit breaks on several high passages. Placed on her voice by age, these restrictions, to my ears at least, added an emotional depth and sense of intimacy that served her well, reminding me of some senior jazz singers such as Abbey Lincoln. Baltar’s set consisted mostly of Piazzolla pieces, both well- and lesser- known, and concluded with a heartfelt rendition of the famous “Balada para un loco” that had the crowd on its feet. And a crowd there was. Who said everything was going on at the coast?

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