As a teenager, Bárbara Varassi Pega fell under the spell of tango in her hometown of Rosario, Argentina. Her attraction has only intensified since — so much so that she went on to post-graduate study in the field and has made playing, teaching, researching, composing and arranging tango her life’s work.
What has drawn her to this soulful music that traces its origins to the 1880s borderlands between Argentina and Uruguay? “Its power,” Pega said via e-mail, “its unique and amazing possibilities for expression; its complexity, beauty, strength and intimacy, all alternating wildly, full of life, and the amazing feeling of playing this music with others.”
Pega will be at the keyboard when the Quinteto Astor Piazzolla performs a special concert Nov. 19 under the auspices of Symphony Center Presents. This appearance, as well as Chicago Symphony Orchestra concerts Nov. 18-21 featuring Piazzolla’s Aconcagua Concerto for Bandoneón and Orchestra, mark the centennial of the Argentine composer and bandoneón master. Along with Pega, Quinteto Astor Piazzolla consists of Pablo Mainetti (bandoneón), Serdar Geldymuradov (violin), Armando de la Vega (guitar), Daniel Falasca (bass) and Julián Vat (musical director).
Piazzolla is internationally acclaimed as the inventor of nuevo tango, transforming traditional tangos for the dance floor into concert works that incorporate elements of jazz and classical music. “Piazzolla made possible the biggest internationalization of tango music around the globe and showed a new and refreshing way of creating and performing tango music fully based on the tango tradition," she said. "This opened many new paths, and all generations of musicians since have been influenced to a greater or lesser extent by the musical legacy of this great musician. Just like with Beethoven or Stravinsky, there is a before and after Piazzolla.”
In 1960, the composer formed his first quintet, with bandoneón (a kind of concertina popular in Argentina and Uruguay), piano, violin, electric guitar and double bass, an innovative combination that many experts believe is the most authentic and expressive vehicle for his music. He organized a second quintet in 1978 that toured for 10 years. “The quintet is the perfect lineup, the one that even Piazzolla loved the most,” Pega said. “It is the best combination of instruments, timbres, registers, sounds and colors. It is the perfect reduction of the most emblematic ensemble of traditional tango, which is the orquesta típica.”
Six years after the composer’s death in 1992, his widow, Laura Escalada Piazzolla, established the Quinteto Astor Piazzolla to continue the composer’s legacy and keep alive the works he wrote for this combination, along with a few arrangements of compositions for other instrumental combinations. The group makes a point of performing pieces that are less widely known and performed, so audiences can get a fuller understanding of the composer’s accomplishments.
“His music has such an impact on the audience,” Pega said, “not only because of its beauty and power, but also because it is accessible to everyone, in the sense that it is related to classical music, traditional tango and even jazz. People, regardless of their nationality, can feel some degree of familiarity with its fascinating uniqueness. It is a kind of a wave that goes straight to the heart and leaves no one indifferent.”
As a child, Pega began studying classical piano and later discovered tango. Although not as large or prominent as Buenos Aires, Rosario has a strong tango tradition, and she attended concerts featuring the tango orchestra of Domingo Federico (with the “late, great” Octavio Brunetti at the piano) and the tango trio of Rodolfo “Cholo” Montironi (with Javier Lo Ré at the piano). “Back then, when I realized I wanted to play tango and actually started to do so," she said. "It was an oddity for a teenager, and even more for a girl, to play tango. So I was rather shy about it and didn’t tell it too much around.”
After earning an undergraduate degree in Rosario, she won a scholarship for further studies in classical piano at a conservatory in Milan. Everything changed in Italy when she met pianist, composer and arranger Gustavo Beytelmann, who played with Piazzolla. She took private lessons with him in Paris and went on to complete a master’s degree in tango at the Codarts University for the Arts in Rotterdam in 2009. “I got so enthusiastic about it — and it went so well — that I went further with a PhD trajectory, which I finished in December 2014. So parallel to my activities as a musician, I’ve developed an academic profile, also around tango music.”
Pega, who now resides in the Netherlands, joined Quinteto Astor Piazzolla several months ago for a European tour, and she has performed with the group many times since. “COVID-19 regulations are a big issue nowadays," she said, "but we still manage to tour and travel a lot, thanks to the quintet’s great team and the huge passion and drive of all its members, including the musical director Julián Vat and the producer Darío Vaccaro, and of course, the amazing musicians who make up the quintet.”