West Coast premiere of “Letters from Argentina,” by Lalo Schifrin


Quick — what’s the first thing you associate with Argentina?

Tango, right?

That’s why celebrated pianist and composer Lalo Schifrin, an Argentine native, assures me his statement is on the record.

“I tell you this openly,” he says. “I didn’t like tango before I met Piazzolla.”

Schifrin, 73, who is scheduled to perform his tango-flavored suite, “Letters from Argentina,” to close Chamber Music Northwest’s 35th season, didn’t want anything to do with his national music until he was inspired by the tango revolutionaries of the 1950s, especially his friend Astor Piazzolla, who shared the same young audience Schifrin drew with big band jazz. After Piazzolla, tango was no longer melodramatic songs about betrayal and loss nor cartoonish dance music, but a swinging, flexible style with room for jazz and modern classical techniques. After Piazzolla, tango was for the concert hall, not the dance floor only.

It is this modern tango — as well as the classical music and jazz on which Schifrin has built his reputation — that we hear in “Letters ,” a series of nine pieces that are both powerfully rhythmic and propelled by passionate, memorable melodies. Composed for piano, bandoneon, violin, double bass, clarinet and percussion, it was inspired by the music Schifrin heard while growing up — a source he has used rarely in a career that includes more than 100 scores for film and TV (Mission Impossible, Cool Hand Luke, Bullit, Dirty Harry, Rush Hour, etc.), four Grammy awards, more than 60 classical compositions, and conducting credits with major orchestras.

Schifrin didn’t even need to return to the country he left at age 26, when he was hired by Dizzy Gillespie, in order to write “Letters ,” he explains from his home in Los Angeles.

“I don’t need to look at postcards or paintings or walk along by the ocean. All I need to do is focus. Everything is inside.”

What he has carried inside since his youth are most notably the rhythms of tango — rhythms derived from the same African roots as the other great musical traditions of the Americas. “Tango del Atardecer,” for instance, with its compelling beat, includes dramatic glissandos, dissonance and phrasing that pauses then hurtles forward, while strongly rhythmic sections alternate with melodic passages.

Other selections come closer to tone poems, and Schifrin has also included an arrangement of apiece by an Argentine classical composer. Though varied, all the pieces share the cinematic scope and narrative drama characteristic of Schifrin’s film work as well as the feel of tango.

Familiarity with tango isn’t necessary to play Schifrin’s compositions, however.

“The way I wrote it, all the phrasing is there, the only thing you have to do is play like a classical piece But, by bringing in Nestor Marconi’s bandoneon,” he adds, “I’ve created a kind of mirage, giving the impression that they really are tango musicians. They are not, except the bass player, Pablo Aslan.”

Besides Schifrin on piano, the group also includes Cho-Liang Lin (violin), Satoshi Takeishi percussion) and clarinetist and CMNW Artistic Director David Shifrin; they are distant cousins, despite the difference in spellings, and plan a classical recording titled “Shifrin Plays Schifrin.”

Because he never heard any walls between them, Lolo Schifrin moves easily from classical music to tango and jazz. “I have a big record collection,” he says, “and I do it by alphabetical order. Miles Davis is next to Debussey.”

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