The program of the Raleigh Symphony Chamber Players’ first of two concerts, Music of the Americas, raises that old question: “What is Classical Music?” Not so many years ago, the “Canon,” consisting of music in the tradition of the proverbial European dead white men, ruled the classical concert stage and record shelves. We conveniently forgot that popular and folk music has always had a place in the canon, albeit “Classicized:” popular – and sometimes off-color – cantus firmi in medieval motets or Renaissance masses; Baroque suites of popular dances; Romantic rhapsodies inspired by Gypsy café fiddling, etc. Sunday’s program brought the tangos of Argentina’s Astor Piazzolla (1921-1992) into the fold.

Piazzolla, whose name is now practically synonymous with “tango,” has recently become a mainstream composer, dominating the RSO Chamber players program. Critics of Piazzolla complain of the monotony of too much tango, but this program introduced considerable variety by including everything from a work for solo flute, Adiós, Nonino Variations, played elegantly by Patty Angevine, to scenes from a tango opera, María de Buenos Aires .

No one can agree on where the tango originated: African-Argentinian slaves? Andalusia? Cataluña? Gypsy? Cuba? For 150 years the characteristic Latin rhythm has been shaped and adapted to nearly every Spanish-speaking culture. The arrabal, the squalid immigrant slums of the late 19th century outside Buenos Aires, bred its own version of the tango, a popular song, laced with bitter urban protest, which by the 1930s had developed into a pessimistic fatalistic and melodramatic outlook on love and life. It was into this emerging grim world that the parents of Astor Piazzolla arrived from Italy after WWI. And it was the music of the arrabal that shaped Piazzolla’s entire career.

During the Depression, Piazzolla’s family moved to New York where he learned piano and the bandoneón, a type of concertina with 38 notes that had become the central instrument in the tango ensembles of his native Argentina. After a stint in Paris, studying composition with no less an eminence than Nadia Boulanger, Piazzolla returned to Argentina to form his first Tango Octet and later his renowned Tango Quintet, featuring the bandoneón, violin, piano, electric guitar and bass. He took his influences from classical, folk and jazz. His compositions were a cut above the traditional tangos, no longer dance music but exploiting every nuance of the dance form. They became concert music, although for the night club rather than the concert hall.

Any ensemble attempting Piazzolla’s music must, before all else, immerse itself in the down-and-dirty emotional extremes from which it grew. Therefore, the three works arranged for octet by Harrison Fisher, “Cierra tus ojos y escucha” (“Close Your Eyes and Listen)”, Duex Xango (Two Tangos) and “Años de soledad” (“Years of Loneliness”) with Jim Williams clarinet, Wayne Leechford baritone saxophone, Yang Xi violin, Michael Castelo viola, Jane Salemson cello, Dan Zehr bass, Vince Moss percussion and Lanette Lind piano, were well played but lacked sufficient depth of passion. The same was true of the Concierto para Quinteto, played by Xi, Zehr, Lind with Silvano Caseres on electric guitar, and Paul Minnis on accordion – instead of the traditional bandoneón. Unfortunately, Caseres tuned his guitar sharp, from which it never recovered.

The scenes from María de Buenos Aires introduced us to the Argentinean popular opera. In this surrealistic tango happening, the plot of which is too off-the-wall to go into here, El Duende (the Goblin) conjures up the memory of María, who tried to escape her miserable existence by exploiting her beauty. Tony Prender, narrator, Lawrence Speakman, baritone and Teresa Fernandez, soprano, were accompanied by the ensemble for Cierra tus ojos – now with Minnis on accordion in place of Williams on clarinet. The ensemble also included a backing group and a pair of dancers – naturally, performing a tango. The novelty and symbolism made it difficult to evaluate, but certainly worth sampling. We realize that the nightclub atmosphere conjured by Piazzolla’s works calls for amplification, but both Fernandez and Speakman probably have strong enough voices to carry without it, and the tinny quality of the sound – especially for Speakman – was problematic. This is the place to note that the paper program caused more confusion than enlightment. It was difficult to figure out what was what, and the total darkness during the performance did not help. It was in dire need of proofreading and editing as well.

Piazzolla does have a more lyrical and subtle side, as witnessed by Adiós, Nonino composed originally for his quintet, inspired by a 1959 poem by Eladia Blazquez, lamenting the loss of her Italian lover. But the flute variations derived from its theme go far beyond the usual tango rhythm, and their fine performance by Angevine added needed variety to the afternoon.

Less successful was Milonga en Re (Milonga – a dance from the La Plata river region – in D Major) for violin and piano. Xi had a few intonation problems at the start, and Lind never got into the spirit of the rhythm. The result was a somewhat stodgy performance.

An odd addition to the program was a reading in Spanish by Teresa Fernandez with line-by-line English translation by Tony Pender of Pablo Neruda’s poem ” Ode to a Happy Day.” The saccharine sweetness of the words clashed with the tart mood of the afternoon’s music.

First but not least, the afternoon’s program opened with The Red Blouse, performed by the Concert Dancers of Raleigh and choreographed in Paul Taylor style by Karen Edwards. Graceful and precise but bland, they danced to the recorded music of Antonio Carlos Jobím.

There was a lot going on Sunday, including the Borromeo with the Raleigh Chamber Music Guild, and only a small audience attended this program. However, the second part of Music of the Americas will take place at 4:00 pm on Saturday, February 28, 2004 at the Bösendorfer Hall. For more information, call the RSO office at 546-9755.