Two amazing Italian Dancers, a super British tango ensemble lead an international cast made up of British, European, Argentine and other South American dancers and actors yet the flavour tastes unmistakably of Argentina.
Midnight Tango is playing to full houses at the Aldwych Theatre, one of the many famous theatres in London’s West End. Last night I was at one of their performances not long before their run in the West End comes to a close and their UK tour begins. Any visitor to London or any of the UK tour venues should definitely try to see it. I remember seeing another famous and successful tango production Tango Argentino here at this theatre many years ago too. Midnight Tango has received rave reviews and features two amazing Italian dancers from BBC television’s ratings-busting show Strictly Come Dancing, Flavia Cacace and Vincent Simone supported by one of the UK’s premiere Tango ensembles Tango Siempre. The combination is explosive. The music moves swiftly between modern tango, traditional tango, milonga with a few other Latin-American rhythms thrown in. Cacace and Simone glide effortlessly through complicated and energetic routines ably supported by a cast of amazing tango dancers. Though none of the members of Tango Siempre are from Argentina they play the music like natives no doubt due to their research and experience in playing this music over many years. Julian Rowlands, their bandoneonist, must be one of the few British bandoneonists who play the bisonoric bandoneon.
Julian, the bandoneon is a fiendishly difficult instrument to play due to the complexity of its seemingly haphazard layout. How long have you been playing the bandoneon, and did you come to it from the accordion?
I’ve been playing the bandoneon for about 7 years. I didn’t play the accordion; my instruments before that were piano, violin and viola. I could have taken up the piano accordion but the weight of the instrument was something I was wary of because I have had problems with my back. From that point of view an instrument that rests on the knees is preferable! I studied classical music at university, and since then I have mainly been involved with world music as a performer as well as composing.
What difficulties did you encounter in learning it?
The keyboard layout of the bandoneon is notorious. On the piano the patterns needed to play a scale are fairly straightforward to visualise, and similarly on violin, guitar or chromatic accordion there are maybe three or four patterns for all of the scales, whereas on the tango bandoneon not only is each scale different, but each octave of each scale is a unique pattern, the left hand is completely different from the right hand, and then opening and closing is different so that makes a total of maybe 120 different patterns just for the major scales in all octaves. But also the control of the sound takes a long time to master; the bellows are very long, so the two keyboards move in very wide arcs, and one has to learn how to control the sound while maintaining contact with the buttons. Opening and closing the bellows produces different sonorities and attack, so the air valve is used a lot to allow one to select a direction for musical reasons rather than playing equally in and out. Then in tango there are the various articulations used to produce the rhythms, which involve moving the legs and bouncing the instrument on the knees. The whole body is involved in producing the sound. I spent about three years doing nothing but practising 12 hours a day and taking lessons before I started playing in public.
How difficult is it for any young musician who wants to learn to play the bandoneon in the UK? Do you teach?
I have some students and I love teaching. One of the problems is the availability of instruments. They just aren’t available in shops, so one has to either find someone who has one to sell, or order a new one from one of the three makers in Europe. They cost about 5000 euros new, a significant investment for a beginner. There is a law in Argentina now that prohibits the export of old bandoneons, and that has pushed up the prices of second hand instruments.
In fact I was briefly a member of Tango Siempre when it first started about 14 years ago, on violin, but I had to leave due to other commitments. Then when the bandoneonist Victor Villena was in England working with Tango Siempre and playing some concertos I became very interested in the instrument. Victor is one of the leading players of the younger generation from Argentina, now living in France. He has a wonderful generosity of spirit and his musicianship is a huge inspiration. At first I wanted to write some music for the bandoneon and so I thought I would learn to play it a bit to find out how to do that, but then the playing took over. To me the bandoneon is simply the perfect instrument, because it combines the features of the instruments I’d previously played: the expressiveness of the violin and the polyphonic potential of the piano. The bandoneon is like a stringed instrument because the bellows action is like bowing, one can swell the sound and play vibrato. It can also be used like a wind instrument, as one hears in Piazzolla’s quintet music. And then in the solo repertoire there is music of great harmonic sophistication. Once I realised what a fantastic instrument it was I was fortunate enough to be able to take lessons with Victor Villena, so I have him to thank for inspiring me to learn and for showing me how to do it.
You, as an ensemble have an absolutely authentic sound but because none of you are Argentinian have you found that you are not accepted in World Music events around the globe as other UK-based tango ensembles have found?
Tango Siempre plays different repertoires ranging from traditional tango to contemporary nuevo tango created by members of the band. The band has toured in Europe performing their original repertoire, but not doing the traditional stuff, perhaps because of that prejudice but also because there is competition from European and Argentinian ensembles. However there are non-Argentinian bandoneonists who have achieved international success, such as Per Arne Glorvigen and Carel Kraayenhof. In music it’s always a question of getting the breaks, and promoters will naturally have a prejudice towards performers from the original country of a particular music genre, so we just have to work harder! People from Europe can play tango just as surely as people from America can play Schubert, but one has to absolutely respect the tradition and spend a lot of time studying the historical recordings, learning how to create that sound world. I have been fortunate to have studied and worked with Argentinian tango musicians and I think it would have been much more difficult to get inside the music without that experience.
Before Midnight Tango all the ensemble members as individuals have played with famous musicians and in some important projects. Tell us about the members of Tango Siempre and some of their experiences.
Pianist Jonathan Taylor is also a jazz musician and composer, working with artists including Andy Sheppard, Pee Wee Ellis and Iain Ballamy. Violinist Ros Stephen does a wide variety of performance and recording work in classical, jazz and world genres, and has her own string quartet, “Sigamos”, for whom she composes and arranges. They have recorded albums with Robert Wyatt and Gilad Atzmon. She has also created a series of educational publications for Oxford University Press, “Globetrotters”, that feature original music in world music styles, and a volume for Schott, “Argentinian Tango and Folk Tunes for Violin”. I also do classical work, having appeared with the London Philharmonic Orchestra soloists and with opera singer Erwin Schrott.
Some members also arrange and compose too don’t they?
Jonathan Taylor, Ros Stephen and myself all write arrangements and original compositions. In the past Tango Siempre commissioned music from composers including Pablo Ziegler and Hugh Warren, but at the moment all of the music we play is arranged or composed by ourselves. The recent album “Malandras del Tango” mainly features compositions by Jon and Ros, and the score for “Midnight Tango” was created by the three of us. It uses some of the compositions from “Malandras” and one piece written for the show by myself, as well as our arrangements of the traditional repertoire.
Strictly Come Dancing is the kind of show the BBC does so well. I have seen the USA’s Dancing with the stars and the Italian equivalent Ballando con le stelle and whilst they are popular shows my personal opinion is that they’re not a patch on Strictly Come Dancing, both in the way the show works and in the levels achieved by the “stars” who dance. Flavia Cacace and Vincent Simone are now big stars themselves and are firm favourites with viewers on that show but they are probably more famous in the UK than they are in Italy. Tango Siempre actually played for one of their tango routines on one of those TV shows recently. How did this amazing project Midnight Tango with Flavia and Vincent come about?
The idea for the show came from co-producer Adam Spiegel, who had met Flavia and Vincent when he was involved with the Strictly Professionals tour. He called them up and asked if they’d like to do their own show, so it all came together from that.
You have a world-famous choreographer Arlene Phillips producing the show, two amazing dancers and some world-class musicians. What comes first when you plan a dance? Do the dancers get choreographed to an existing musical arrangement or do you have to tailor the music to suit the dance? Or a bit of both?
Normally when we work with tango dancers they have specific routines worked out to traditional tango recordings, so we can just transcribe that tango, arrange it for our ensemble and then perform it with their existing choreography. With Midnight Tango the process was much more involved than that. The choreography was a collaboration between Vincent, Flavia and director Karen Bruce. We had an initial “shopping list” of tunes that we arranged, but then in rehearsal we were constantly changing the music as Karen refined the dramatic action and pacing. It was a full time job for Ros, Jon and myself to attend rehearsals, work out any changes as they were needed and then recompose the pieces to incorporate the changes. Midnight Tango is a show that contains a whole dramatic narrative performed without words by the dancers and actors, so this level of control of the musical structure was necessary in order to make the dramatic action work. It was fascinating to work with a director who was creating the show in this way as we went along.
You are about to embark on a UK tour. What next for the company of Midnight Tango and Tango Siempre?
We are at the Aldywch Theatre until 31st of March, then we have a week off before hitting the road for 14 weeks. After that, Tango Siempre will be touring our own show “Tangomotion” in the autumn with some of the dancers from Midnight Tango.
Midnight Tango tour dates:
10 – 14 April Newcastle Theatre Royal 0844 811 2121
17 – 21 April Manchester Opera House 0844 871 3018
24 – 28 April Southend Pavilion Theatre 01702 351135
1 – 5 May Woking New Victoria Theatre 0844 871 7645
7 – 12 May Canterbury Marlowe Theatre 01227 787 787
23 – 26 May Belfast Waterfront Hall 028 9033 4455
29 May – 2 June Leicester De Montfort Hall 0116 233 3111
5 – 9 June Dublin Grand Canal Theatre 0818 719 377
12 – 16 June Southampton Mayflower 02380 711811
19 – 23 June Wolverhampton Grand Theatre 01902 429 212
25 – 26 June Liverpool Empire 0844 871 3017
27 – 30 June Edinburgh Playhouse 0844 847 1660
2 – 3 July Oxford New Theatre 0844 847 1585
4 – 7 July Bristol Hippodrome 0844 871 3012
10 – 14 July Milton Keynes Theatre 0844 871 7652
16 – 21 July Aberdeen His Majesty’s 01224 64 1122
Julian Rowlands: http://www.bandoneon.co.uk
Tango Siempre: http://www.tangomusic.co.uk/
Midnight Tango: http://www.midnighttango.co.uk/