I remember watching the BBC programme that introduced Benjamin
Yusopov’s Viola Tango Rock Concerto, performed
by its dedicatee Maxim Vengerov. The composer and the violinist
were firm friends - sonata colleagues and eminent performers
- and Yusupov had already dedicated his 1998 Violin Concerto
and his 2003 piece Maximum to Vengerov. It’s not
so surprising that Vengerov has called the Viola Tango Rock
Concerto ‘the greatest concerto written for viola’
though the rest of us, listening in our dull, old-fashioned
ways to our Telemann, and Walton, and all the others, may possibly
have other ideas.
The performance in this DVD comes from a Colombian performance
given in 2009. Its star performer is the Portuguese violist
Anibal Dos Santos, who was actually born in Caracas in 1963,
later studying with Joseph de Pasquale in Philadelphia. He gave
the North and South American premiere of this concerto with
these forces in May 2007. The filmed performance too k place
two years later, with the composer present.
I was worried at first. The picture was murky and rather opaque,
but then es ward Licht, and all was well. Dos Santos
is a big, hulking man, bald, stubbly, and wearing an outsize
black jacket. You probably wouldn’t want to disagree with
him if he told you that, yes, Yusupov’s was the
greatest viola concerto ever written and Walton’s was
just a Mediterranean jeu d’esprit. He doesn’t
look like the kind of chap to be trifled with. I’ve seen
Alpine ridges more forgiving.
The camera work is broadly unobtrusive. It shows the hard working
orchestra and the various extra instrumentalists - the rock
trio of electric guitar, electric bass and drums, the accordion
and the acoustic guitar. Yusopov specified Bandoneon but I assume
the acoustic guitar is an acceptable substitute, and I can’t
now recall if the Vengerov performance had which of the two
instruments. The Bandoneon makes sense for the Tango in a Piazzollan
kind of way. The dour opening is well controlled by conductor
Ricardo Jaramillo who beats time, baton-less, in a very mathematical
kind of way - more quadratic equations than post-Shostakovich.
The infiltrated baroque figures are always haunting - but then
they always tend to be, in my experience, in whatever medium
- but it’s when Dos Santos puts down his conventional
viola for the third movement and picks up his groovy electric
model that the floor shown begins. Lights strobe, the rock trio
kicks in, and things go back to 1967. The music then reverts
to melancholy and the (conventional) viola passages get more
and more strenuous and powerful. We then fade to black. Dos
Santos leaves. The winds pipe up, introducing the accordion;
this gap allows Dos Santos to unpeel his black jacket and to
be manoeuvred into a new red one, the size of a small principality.
On comes slinky dancer and choreographer Gina Medina. Dos Santos,
grizzled, vast, bald, red-jacketed, sullen, heavy as a broken
heart, lumbers around her. She keeps her Tango kicks to a minimum.
The poor man has been slogging his guts out for nearly 40 minutes
and here he is having to dance a Tango.
At the end Yusupov comes on to take applause, with the performers,
from the mixed age ranged audience who are commendably enthusiastic.
I should add finally that we hear the full six movement version
including the Postludium and Go Tango. Has anyone
ever played the cut-down version?
The concerto is a kind of multimedia event. Its tone is predominantly
rather dark - darker than you’d imagine from the jolly-sounding
title - but relieved by intense outbursts of pummelling rock
back beat and Tango intensity. I’ve never seen the Tango
section really work, though - not even with Vengerov.