With its expressive, reedy tone and air-filled bellows that can expand more than three feet, the bandoneón is one of the world’s most dramatic instruments. Related to the accordion and concertina, the bandoneón was invented in Germany and brought to Argentina in the 19th century by German emigrants, missionaries, and sailors. It’s known for its role in Argentine tango music, where its soulful melodies and crackling chords convey the passion of the dance. Today, tango and the bandoneón are virtually inseparable.
A youthful upstart hailing from the tradition of great Argentine bandoneónists, New York-based Juan Pablo Jofre brings explosive energy to the tango genre with his lightning-fast chops and flair for drama. After starting his musical career as a drummer in a metal band, Jofre switched to bandoneón and found an outlet for his creative energies. His first album, Hard Tango, combines Jofre’s own compositions with arrangements of tango favorites. In February 2012, during their first visit to Seattle, Jofre and his ensemble blew Town Hall audiences away with tracks from the 2011 release. The energy in the hall was downright electric, with Jofre and his three-member band locked into a solid groove and amping up the excitement level with each successive tune. It was one of the most memorable performances I attended that year.
Jofre’s anticipated return to Seattle on November 22 did not disappoint. Town Hall’s main auditorium was abuzz with chatter from the crowd, eager to hear what the master bandoneónist had cooked up in the past year. Accompanied by an all-new Hard Tango Chamber Band, Jofre’s program included several solos and duets, as well as pieces for the full four-member ensemble. While last year’s quartet was comprised of musicians who hail from the tango tradition, the Hard Tango Chamber Band features players with strong classical roots. Pianist Daniela Candillari and cellist Yves Dharamraj both have orchestral experience and perform regularly in the classical realm. Well-versed in classical, jazz, and other improvisatory styles, violinist Christiana Liberis rounded out the quartet.
Clad in a slick, all-black outfit complete with his trademark dark glasses, Jofre opened the show with the cadenza from his Bandoneón Concerto. The extended solo highlighted the instrument’s enormous range, spanning from barely-audible sighs to layered chords that seemed to pay tribute to Jofre’s heavy metal past. A commanding soloist, Jofre held the audience captive with his playing, his arms spreading to stretch the bandoneón to its full wingspan while his fingers blazed over the instrument’s keys. These moments showcased Jofre at his best, as a soloist captivating the crowd with his bold musical storytelling.
Though not as energetic as Jofre’s solo sections, his set of four duets — two for violin and bandoneón, and two for cello and bandoneón — illustrated a different side of the composer’s personality. Tangodromo, an expressive duet for violin and bandoneón, swapped the traditional roles of the two instruments by assigning the melody to the bandoneón and the accompaniment to the violin. From smooth legato passages to plucked pizzicato countermelodies, Liberis balanced Jofre’s melancholy melodies with a variety of textures. A soulful player, cellist Dharamraj brought an understated poignance to his duets with Jofre, Como el Agua (“Like Water”) and Sweet Dreams.
Sandwiched between the duets was the world premiere of Jofre’s Carta de Amor. Confidently performed by Candillari, the piano solo’s opening melodies gradually blossomed into a sweet flower of a piece. Though a bit on the sentimental side, Carta de Amor demonstrates Jofre’s ability to seamlessly transform a simple mood or melodic line into something far more eloquent and complex.
The full quartet rallied for the program’s ensemble pieces, delivering the drama and intensity that audiences have come to expect from Jofre’s performances. In addition to favorites from the Hard Tango album, including the driving Universe and sprightly Primavera, several new tunes made an appearance. Written in honor of the drummer for Metallica, Lars captures heavy metal’s thrashing energy in the guise of a tango tune. Slow and sentimental, After the Rain provided a welcome break from the non-stop action. In true Argentine fashion, Jofre’s pair of Tango Movements paid tribute to his country and his mother, a moving duo of pieces that traversed a range of emotions.
As an ensemble, the Hard Tango Chamber Band doesn’t possess the fire and razor-sharp coordination of Jofre’s 2012 quartet. Instead, the musicians of the Chamber Band bring a different set of talents to the table. November 22’s performance gave Jofre’s repertoire a classical spin with smoother articulations and more pedal in the piano. In this case, the name “Chamber Band” is an apt choice — the ensemble combines the traditions of chamber music with the dramatic stylings of tango.
Jofre’s performance is part of Town Hall’s Global Rhythms series, featuring musical traditions from around the world. Next up in the series is the Krar Collective, an Ethiopian band that blends folk sounds with contemporary rock. They’ll perform at Town Hall on January 24, 2014. After that, the ladies of the Barefoot Divas present a Valentine’s Day concert on February 14.