Tango Euphoria by Quartet San Francisco

Quartet San Francisco, the eclectic and adventuresome Bay Area chamber ensemble, knocked the socks off its March 27 Mill Valley Chamber Music Society audience with their program of Latin and Tango music.

From the heated opening bars of Astor Piazzolla’s Libertango through Chick Corea’s ebullient Spain, the four players inspired collective euphoria. Chins bobbed and feet tapped. Whatever worries patrons brought with them to the Mt. Tamalpais Church were swept away by the beating pulse and edgy harmonies of the arrangements of thirteen exciting pieces of music.

Arrangements is the key word. Almost every piece not by composer Jeremy Cohen (QSF’s first violinist) had to be arranged for string quartet. One of the beauties of Piazzolla is that his music doesn’t lose its soulful essence whether played by a single instrument or an ensemble. The composer favored a quintet of bandoneon (a type of concertina), violin, double bass, electric guitar, and piano, but QSF consists of two violins (Mr. Cohen and Joseph Christianson); a violist, Chad Kaltinger, and Andrés Vera playing cello, which clearly calls for the arranger’s craft. While no announcement was made during the concert or in the program about the arrangers, I surmise that Mr. Cohen must receive credit for much of it, no doubt in collaboration with the Quartet’s other members.

The musicians play standing, unlike most classical string quartets, and Mr. Vera’s cello is strapped to him, jutting out from his chest in a diagonal, making it possible for him to move, even dance, as he plays. The strap configuration was developed by a cellist who because of an injury could no longer sit to play. Founded in 2001, the Quartet performs jazz, funk, pop, blues, gypsy swing, big band, and more. They relish collaborations and crossovers. And on this early evening, being able to give a live performance was clearly a joy for the musicians and the audience.

The only composer announced in advance on the Mill Valley web site was Piazzolla, and no further information was given. Piazzolla is popular and no doubt attracted many in the audience, who were rewarded with four compositions by the tango master: Libertango, Nuevo Tango, Gallo Ciego (Blind Rooster), and Melodía en la menor (Melody in A minor). The other composers were Gerardo Matos Rodriguez, Argentinians Armando Pontier and Mariano Mores, Italian Giovanni Sollima, and Mr. Cohen.

There’s old timey, traditional tango, which often features voice, and there’s Piazzolla “nuevo tango.” Like his predecessors, his tangos touch the emotions, their pace and pulse pound in the blood, and the melodies soar and bubble and flow. Alternately melancholic, frenzied, sexy, and austere, the complex, layered harmonies are full of tension, repressed angst, and consuming desire. The dances that inspired the music (the tango, the milonga, flamenco) are all those things. In every piece on the program, Quartet San Francisco produced a textured, immersive sound full of emotion.

Libertango, which opened the program, is an early work and one of the composer’s most frequently performed. Mr. Kaltinger’s deep, rich viola led the voices while Mr. Vera’s cello played ostinato, and the violins’ harmonies played tag over the pulsating rhythms.

Sollima’s Federico II, part of a suite, was a mélange of gypsy swing, Mideastern drone, dances from the British Isles and the medieval pentatonic scale. There were delicious dissonances. At one point the strings imitated a thousand bees and the air grew thick with flying insects. The rhythms insisted, the violins sliced, there were wooden taps, muted strings, and deliberately flattened notes.

Milongueando en el cuarenta, by Pontier, was next. A milonga, also known as Habanera pobre, is a slow rhythmic tango, originally from Havana, and en el cuarenta means in the 40, perhaps referring to a street or neighborhood. There were high-pitched tweets, scratching, leaping staccatos and swaying legatos. Next was Mr. Cohen’s lovely Tango Carnevale, a slow dance which he informed the audience was “inspired by sublime evenings spent in the neighborhoods of Buenos Aires in 2002.” One could only imagine!

The next piece, Matos Rodrigues’ “La Cumparsita” (a little marching band) is perhaps the most famous tango of them all, instantly recognizable. It is slow, hypnotic, in duple time, moving from an emphatic tiptoe to a slinky slide and back. Although on the surface it is a simple tune, there were interesting complexities in the arrangement.

Ending the first half of the concert was Piazzolla’s Nuevo Tango, a densely textured, rhythmic tour de force, with snappy pizzicato. Each member of the quartet was given a virtuosic performance turn.

The second half featured two pieces by Mr. Cohen, first Encuentro Pasional (Passionate Meeting), which Mr. Cohen explained was composed for the ensemble’s tango dancers using the exact rhythmic map of a Piazzolla piece. “The timing is Piazzolla’s, the rest is mine” he explained. It featured a slow section of plaintive gypsy music, which revved up to dense, dark twirls of sound evoking perhaps Prokofiev. Guamba, which followed, is a tribute to the people of Guam, who extended great hospitality to the Quartet during an extended visit to that remote island. Guamba is a samba complete with rhythmic scratching on muted strings, plucking, and ebullient dissonances. The ensemble then played Piazzolla’s Gallo Ciego with effects imitating the progress of a blind rooster strutting his way around the hen house asserting his rather sad dominance.

Mariano Mores’ Taquito Militar included percussive effects and precipitous slides down instrumental strings. Clearly, the musicians were having fun with this work, and so was the audience. All tango can be too much of a good thing, if there isn’t variety in mood, and Piazzolla’s Melodía en la Menor was a relief as the penultimate programmed piece after the high energy of the rest of the program. It was a thoughtful, contemplative, sensual and mesmerizing performance.

The concert ended with Corea’s Spain, a musical opportunity for each member to shine, and shine they did. It was tempting to clap after each solo, as one would do at a jazz concert. When the last notes died, every member of the audience rose in a standing ovation, and cries of delight were heard around the hall. Quartet San Francisco played an encore, a stirring arrangement of “White Rabbit” by the rock group Jefferson Airplane, and the audience showed their warm appreciation with prolonged applause and long lines of congratulations to the Quartet in the lobby.