Friday, February 08, 2008
Fernando Otero at Joe’s Pub
Fernando Otero is an Argentine pianist and composer who has been based in New York for a number of years now. This concert—my first review of a live show in quite some time—marked the release of his first album on Nonesuch Records, Pagina de Buenos Aires (2008). This recording will no doubt go a long way towards making Otero a star here in the States, though he has already gotten a lot of attention from fellow musicians. Otero has recently performed and recorded some of his music with clarinetist Paquito D’Rivera, and the new music super group (and Nonesuch label mates) Kronos Quartet are scheduled to premiere a new piece of his at Carnegie Hall later this month. However, those who are not new to Otero’s music will be disappointed in that much if not most of the “new” recording has in fact been culled from previous releases, including 2003’s Plan, featuring mixed ensembles, and 2005’s Revision, a densely haunting duet recording with violinist Nick Danielson. I can understand why Otero’s new label would not want to title their first album with him “Fernando Otero’s Greatest Hits,” but I, for one, hope that Nonesuch gets sufficient return on their investment in Otero to warrant producing genuinely new material for future releases.
This concert featured Otero and violinist Danielson in their duo format, and illustrated the productively uncomfortable space Otero’s music straddles between tango, jazz, and “classical” composition. Given that mix, we may be tempted to think of Otero as some kind of heir apparent to Piazzolla, though listening to his music does not really justify such comparisons. While some of Otero’s recorded material nods at tango—with marcatos, síncopas, arrastres and other genre markers utilized sparingly—here the most obvious “tangoism” was the violinist’s occasional percussive scratching on the strings behind the bridge. That and the general violence of the music, though even that was taken to nearly unrecognizable extremes. At even his most bombastic, Piazzolla’s music is violent the way the knife-wielding malevos of early tango songs were violent, killing with honor, grace, skill, and dignity, but killing nonetheless. Otero’s music, on the other hand, goes at you with his bare hands, suddenly grabbing you and shaking you, tossing you aside abruptly and almost indifferently when it is all over.
Otero plays the piano with that same kind of manic energy, attacking the keyboard with his whole body so that hardly a moment goes by without all ten fingers solidly in the game. This makes for an exhilarating racket, especially when he concentrates in the lower register of the instrument, though I thought it was somewhat less effective in more mid range, melodic passages, especially given the sparse instrumentation. Danielson, for his part, matched this intensity throughout, skillfully executing pieces that unfolded like a series of disjointed outbursts rather than some kind of sequential journey. In a short piece for solo violin, Danielson sawed away at his instrument with the energy of an old time fiddler keeping a dancing room on its feet. And while dancing would be a highly unlikely response to Otero’s music, I could imagine how well his ideas would translate to the string quartet format, and I look forward to hearing his work for Kronos.
Indeed, Otero’s overall musical voice, at least on this night, seems to have much more in common with the edgy modernism of the composers that Kronos championed before they went on their world music binge than any kind of tango music, contemporary or otherwise. So while it might feel natural to mention Otero in the same breath as someone like Piazzolla, comparing his music to the dissonant expressiveness of composers like Shostakovich or Messiaen would in fact be more appropriate. Gratefully, Nonesuch does not seem to be promoting Otero as a tango musician for tango audiences, an association that, let’s face it, would probably either miss or close the ears of the listeners that will really be interested in this music. That said, Otero, for now, is living in the shadow of tango and seems to be enjoying it quite a bit. About half way through the set, he channeled Augustus Pablo by picking up a melodica and taking the audience on an avant-garde romp through “La Cumparsita.” Knowing glances flashed across the room as the many tango fans in the audience recognized the classic/cliché song. And while the musicians were clearly making an artistic statement with this inside joke, next time hopefully not so many people will get it.