The Piazzolla Perplex
Today we ponder the following mystery: How and when did Astor Piazzolla become an honorary classical composer?
I must come across his music something like a dozen times a year — in violin recitals, on string quartet programs, and this week courtesy of the San Francisco Symphony — and I can never quite fathom what it's doing there. It doesn't seem to share any of the genre expectations of anything else on the program (except in cases where genre boundaries are deliberately blurred, like concerts by the Kronos Quartet). It's always a visitor from the world of pop music, on the scene with a special visa. Who stamped it?
I don't mean to sound snobby about this, and certainly the fact that Piazzolla's music bores me to distraction is my problem, not his. I'm happy to stipulate that he was an innovative genius who invested the tango with an unprecedented degree of artistic sophistication (how would I know otherwise?). But you could say something similar about many other artists working in vernacular traditions whose music doesn't show up on concert programs. A working classical critic, for example, never hears music by Prince, Thelonious Monk, Bill Monroe, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, Brian Eno or even Lennon & McCartney in the course of his daily rounds. And OK, violinists like Piazzolla for obvious reasons, but somehow they never play "Orange Blossom Special," do they?
There seems to be an unspoken agreement not to play "One of these things is not like the others" when faced with a program of, say, Bach, Mozart, Shostakovich, Britten, and Piazzolla. I suspect that that reluctance has something to do with lingering unease around how we talk about non-European and/or popular music. I also suspect, more cynically, that Piazzolla — like the equally ubiquitous and equally dull Arvo Pärt — is one of the standard methods performers have developed to get their "contemporary music" ticket punched without scaring anybody. Either way, it's a very peculiar phenomenon.