Astor Piazzolla, the last great Tango composer, was at the peak of his creativity when a stroke killed him in 1992. He left us, in the words of the old tango, "without saying good bye", and that day the musical face of Buenos Aires was abruptly frozen. The creation of that face had started a hundred years earlier from the unlikely combination of African rhythms underlying gauchos' couplets, sung in the style of Sicilian canzonettas over an accompanying Andalucian guitar. As the years passed all converged towards the bandoneon: a small accordion-like instrument without keyboard that was invented in Germany in the 19th century to serve as a portable church organ and which, after finding its true home in the bordellos of Buenos Aires' slums in the 1920s, went back to Europe to conquer Paris' high society in the 1930s. Since then it reigned as the essential instrument for any Tango ensemble.
Piazzolla's bandoneon was able to condense all the symbols of tango. The eroticism of legs and torsos in the dance was reduced to the intricate patterns of his virtuoso fingers (a simple C major scale in the bandoneon zigzags so much as to leave an inexperienced player's fingers tangled). The melancholy of the singer's voice was transposed to the breathing of the bandoneon's continuous opening and closing. The macho attitude of the tangueros was reflected in his pose on stage: standing upright, chest forward, right leg on a stool, the bandoneon on top of it, being by turns raised, battered, caressed.
I composed Last Round in 1996, prompted by Geoff Nuttall and Barry Shiffman. They heard a sketch of the second movement, which I had written in 1991 upon hearing the news of Piazzolla's stroke, and encouraged me to finish it and write another movement to complement it. The title is borrowed from a short story on boxing by Julio Cortázar, the metaphor for an imaginary chance for Piazzolla's spirit to fight one more time (he used to get into fistfights throughout his life). The piece is conceived as an idealized bandoneon. The first movement represents the act of a violent compression of the instrument and the second a final, seemingly endless opening sigh (it is actually a fantasy over the refrain of the song My Beloved Buenos Aires, composed by the legendary Carlos Gardel in the 1930s). But Last Round is also a sublimated tango dance. Two quartets confront each other, separated by the focal bass, with violins and violas standing up as in the traditional tango orchestras. The bows fly in the air as inverted legs in crisscrossed choreography, always attracting and repelling each other, always in danger of clashing, always avoiding it with the immutability that can only be acquired by transforming hot passion into pure pattern.
This program note may be reproduced free of charge in concert programs with a credit to the composer.