Golijov – Last Round

by Max Derrickson

Oswaldo Golijov
(Born in La Plata, Argentina in 1960)

Last Round
1. Movido, Urgente – Macho, Cool and Dangerous
2. Lentissimo – Death of Angels

Oswaldo Golijov’s Last Round is as masterful as it is wonderfully quirky, a chamber work that honors the tango, Argentina’s beloved song and dance, while also serving as an elegy for two of tango’s greatest composers – Astor Piazzolla and Carlos Gardel.  Last Round uncannily captures what has been true about the tango from its beginnings – that of a multi-cultural, always-evolving form of music.

The tango itself came about as amazing amalgamation of influences.  By the 1890’s, tango had reached Buenos Aires, Argentina, but not before first stopping through Uruguay and Cuba.  Tango first took its form in Uruguay as a West African slave-trade musical form called candombe.  The word itself designated a set of drums, but the drums became a part of a spiritual dance and song, under the same name, which was only preformed during carnival… a splendid blend of West African and Catholic influences.  The song and dance form then moved with the active slave trade to Cuba, [. . .]   German immigrants as a substitute for the organ in makeshift churches.  By the early 1900’s, the tango, as we generally know it today, had morphed in Buenos Aires into the overtly sensual form of singer, bandoneónista, and two dancers, and has since become one of Argentina’s most prized cultural icons – and as diversely invested with influences and change as perhaps any song and dance form ever has.

Golijov is himself one of the world’s most sought-after new composers, and he brings his own cosmopolitanism to Last Round.  But he comes by the tango honestly: born and raised in Argentina to Eastern European Jewish immigrants, Golijov grew up immersed in Jewish, Classical, South American pop music, and of course, the tango.  He went on to study music first in Israel  [. . .]  the world to the beauties of tango, especially with his famous tango song My Beloved Buenos Aires in the 1930’s.  Along the way, Golijov fell in love with the tangos of Astor Piazzolla (1921 – 1992), especially with his first set of tangos in the 1960’s, which challenged the “old guard” tangos with his new approach – the “nuevo tango.”  Said Piazzolla: “Nuevo tango = tango + tragedy + comedy + whorehouse.”  One tango in particular in his early 1960’s set, which truly epitomized Piazzolla’s philosophy, was titled La muerte del ángel, which, [. . .]  (what would later become) Last Round – Lentissimo – Death of Angels.  A few years later he was commissioned to expand the work and Golijov added the first movement.  It premiered in 1996 to high acclaim.

Last Round’s orchestration is wonderfully unique.  Two small string ensembles oppose each other on stage, and they are moderated and anchored by a double bass in the middle.  Golijov’s objective was to create a [. . .] rough and tumble street musicians of the underbelly of Buenos Aires, circa early 1900’s.  Wheezing and snapping, the “string-bandoneón” creates a very untidy, and altogether joyful, [. . .] , almost chaotic, [. . .]over 300 tangos that he wrote.

The second movement is the threnody of the two great tango men, and is fittingly somber.  Its subtitle, of course, is named in homage to Piazzolla’s groundbreaking tango La muerte del ángel of the 1960’s, but only in name – here serving as literal reference [. . .]  Golijov finally quotes outright the famous Gardel refrain from his tango, My Beloved Buenos Aires.  Heard clearly and somberly – the first true melody to invade the movement.  From then on, the movement rhapsodizes on Gardel’s refrain and Golijov’s “endless pull” idea, [. . .]  delightfully new and engaging for today.