The program was called “Tango! Soul and Heart,” and my first reaction, seeing the title, was to go off on a riff about how “tango” appears to have become a synonym for a light, accessible, letting-our-hair-down-and-bringing-in-that-audience approach on so-called classical programs. This was the second tango-themed program I’d attended at the Kennedy Center this month, and the earlier one, with the violinist Augustin Hadelich, certainly used “tango” to stand for all these things.
But Sunday afternoon’s program, presented by the Choral Arts Society, wasn’t really in this vein. All right, it had its light and entertaining moments; it even had actual tango dancers, kicking and whirling back and forth across the stage in the second half of the program. But it was more ambitious, genuine, and interesting than I had expected — not least because it wasn’t just Choral Arts’s baby, but rather a collaboration with another local organization, the Pan American Symphony Orchestra, which staked out the second half of the concert. If anyone needed proof that collaborations between organizations can give a program vitality, this was it.
Choral Arts, in its second season under Scott Tucker, is continuing to try to find new directions. What this meant, on Sunday, was, first, a new repertoire: Ginastera’s “The Lamentations of Jeremiah,” an a cappella triptych of biblical settings written at Tanglewood in 1946; and a 1997 “Missa Tango” by Luis Bacalov, a composer who has worked extensively in film and who brought an evocative dance-y soundtrack, with two vocal soloists and a bandoneon, to simplified Spanish versions of the traditional Mass.
Both works were refreshing balances of contrasts. Ginastera’s was compact and bursting with feeling, starting with a first movement (“O vos omnes”) that ripped through the silence with the cries of women’s voices, rocketing through grief with a sense of hysteria rather than the somber heaviness that more usually denotes sorrow in the musical realm. Bacalov’s (which has been recorded with Placido Domingo) was catchy and earnest, offering the idea that the vernacular can be worshipful; the tango, serious; and the light, appealing. Javier Arrey, a former member of the Washington National Opera’s Domingo-Cafritz program, offered a clear, resonant baritone, and Anamer Castrello offered a husky mezzo with some stridency at the top. Emanuel Trifilio provided the distinctive reedy sound of the bandoneon, while the chorus sang capably.
After intermission, Tucker yielded the podium to Sergio Alessandro Buslje, founder of the Pan American Symphony, for a selection of instrumental and vocal tangos. Arrey offered a serious and slightly stilted opera-singer take on songs by Carlos Gardel; Castrello viscerally connected to pieces by Virgilio and Homero Exposito (“Naranjo en Flor”) and Piazzolla (“Milonga de la Annunciacion”), though vocally was sometimes rough; the pianist Octavio Brunetti thundered out Piazzolla’s “Adios Nonino”; the chorus sometimes provided innocuous back-up; and Buslje acted as master of ceremonies while the tango dancers stomped out again, and again, and again. This kind of thing is not to everyone’s taste, but it works so much better when it’s done by an ensemble that is adept at doing it than by classical musicians desperately trying to look cool. It was an added bonus to have a competent orchestral conductor, Buslje, bringing some flair to the podium at a choral concert.
A purist could rip apart this kind of event as an artificial hybrid performance. In practice, though, it came off as a productive melting pot that enabled two groups to take on some different music and maybe even reach each other’s audiences. The audience that was there, at least, appeared to be having fun, which has to be part of the point.