The final concert of this year’s Carolina Summer Music Festival invoked seduction and sensuality as the soloists performed a concert devoted to the dances of Argentina, most notably, the tango. The large audience in Gray Auditorium (Old Salem) sipped wine from a regional vineyard, Hanover Park, and at least one patron danced for a while, partner-less.

The tango had its origins in the low class bordellos and housing patios of 19th century Buenos Aires. Suggestive in step and erotic in text, the tango took the then-recent dance innovation of the “closed position,” (introduced by the Viennese waltz and the Bohemian polka) to shocking new closeness, with cheek and chest touching and steps invading leg-space.

Musically derived from the Milonga, a term which currently also refers to a tango party, and even earlier from the habañera, the tango has a characteristic rhythm of long – short – e-ven (dotted eighth, sixteenth and two eighth notes). This rhythm pervades music in the 19th century, notably in the famous “Habañera” from Bizet’s Carmen, Saint-Saens’ “Havanaise” for solo violin and orchestra, and even the seduction scene in Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloé, where the rhythm is often sacrificed to the whims and fancies of the flute soloist.

The concert opened with the longest work performed all evening, appropriately entitled, L’histoire du Tango (The History of the Tango) by Astor Piazzolla, the late bandoneón virtuoso and composer of countless tangos. Splendidly played in its original flute and guitar version by Elizabeth Ransom and Joseph Pecoraro, the four movements trace the progress of the dance from the obscure bordello in 1900, to the popular Parisian café in 1930, to the glamorous nightclub in 1960, and finally to the present (the work dates from the late 1970s). The style changes are obvious, from early virtuosic writing in the first movement, to sultry, slippery slides in the second movement yielding to reflective and soulful melodic writing and intriguing tongue-clicks on the flute in the third movement (evocative of Simon and Garfunkel). After a long transition, the last movement is quite modern, with excursions into bi-tonality and chromaticism.

Much to the consternation of Argentine traditionalists, Piazzolla changed the nature of the tango, often referred to as “Tango Nuevo.” Although he often performed in a quintet formed of a bandoneón (button accordion), violin, bass, piano and electric guitar, he encouraged arrangements of his pieces to fit the instruments at hand, which is what the members of the festival have done with several of these works.

The second work was the breathtakingly beautiful “Milonga del Angel,” performed perfectly in character by Jacqui Carrasco, violin, Matt Kendrick, bass and Federico Pivetta, piano. Dreamy and slow, the violin enters with indistinguishable words, like a gypsy singing sonorous meanings in a forgotten language. (Hear Piazzolla himself playing this piece on bandoneón. See the Milonga del Ángel illustration here [inactive 4/11].)

Adding four wind players to form a sextet (Anthony Taylor, clarinet, Carol Bernstorf, bassoon, Joe Mount, horn, and Carrasco, Ransom and Pivetta), the musicians closed the first half of the concert with the enigmatic “Tango seis” (Tango Six). Starting with a low pedal point topped by unconventional harmonies and several flashy cadenzas – violin, bassoon – this is a bi-tonal approach to the tango I’ve never encountered. It takes the tango off the dance-floor and onto the space station. Tango muy nuevo!  A seasoned lady sitting behind me muttered “that’s not a tango!”

After intermission, we were treated to half a dozen dances by almost as many composers played on the violin, piano and bass. “Recuerdo” (Memory) by Osvaldo Pugliese is moody, switching from a walking step to abrupt imaginary swoops and leg hooks. See another illustration here [inactive 4/11].

Two works by Julián Plaza followed: “Danzarín” (Dancer) a dramatic and moody tango with sudden shifts from sultry to passionately rhythmic and couched in Gershwin-esque harmonies; and, “Nocturna,” a milonga employing the harmonic series in a Stravinsky-esque fashion with several references to “Cheek to Cheek” (Top Hat, 1935).

“Flor de lino” (Flax Flower) by Héctor Stamponi is a “vals” (waltz) in a fast one, danced like the tango, with one step per bar, unlike the Viennese waltz which usually has three steps per bar.

We were then treated to a performance of “J’tango” (I tango) by local composer, David Ford, husband of Jacqui Carrasco, violin. This tango falls in the realm of a fantasy, weaving in and out of the signature tango rhythm gently, without the wild mood shifts of earlier in the evening.

Two more pieces by Piazzolla closed the program, if not the concert, “Verano porteño” (Buenos Aires Summer) and “Revirado,” (Returned) a piece evoking the memory of Edith Piaf. The encore, “Hernando’s Hideaway” (Pajama Game, 1954) brought the house to its feet for a deserved standing ovation.  Bravo all!