Argentine Guitarist Cacho Tirao; Virtuoso Crossed Genres, Oceans

By Adam Bernstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 7, 2007

Cacho Tirao, 66, an Argentine guitar virtuoso whose wide travels made him one of his country's leading musical ambassadors, died May 30 at Argerich Hospital in Buenos Aires after a stroke.

A radio star as a child, Mr. Tirao rose to greater prominence as a teenager as he won important engagements as a soloist.

His most enduring early association came with the Astor Piazzolla Quintet, which he joined in the late 1960s. A signature of Mr. Tirao's playing was the unpredictable and exciting chord changes encouraged by Piazzolla, the modern tango composer, bandleader and bandoneon player whom Mr. Tirao regarded as a musical mentor.

During a career that featured him on 36 records as a solo artist, Mr. Tirao remained exceedingly versatile. He shifted among tango, jazz, samba, folklore, classical, pop and Jewish music -- though his pop orchestration of "Hava Nagila" arguably lacked the warmth he tried to cultivate after some early critics accused him of being a brilliant but "cold" player.

In performance, he enjoyed showing off. He made technically tricky pieces, such as the left-handed dazzler "Estudio Para la Mano Izquierda," seem as easy as "Chopsticks."

As a composer, Mr. Tirao was responsible for numerous tangos, milongas and sambas. His most remembered works include "Le Petit Tango," "Tercer Tiempo" and "Teresa, Mi Renacer." The last, named in honor of his wife, loosely translated means "Teresa, you are my renewal." He also wrote the larger-scale composition "Conciertango Buenos Aires" for guitar and orchestra, which premiered in 1985 in Belgium.

Oscar Emilio Tirao was born April 5, 1941, in Berazategui, in the Buenos Aires province. He learned guitar at 4 from his father, a classical guitarist, who along with Andres Segovia became one of his earliest influences.

Mr. Tirao began appearing on the radio at age 6 and a few years later made his debut as a concert performer. By 16, he was working as a soloist with the orchestra of the Teatro Argentino de la Plata, a theater in the capital city of Buenos Aires province, as well as with the popular jazz and tango bandleader Rene Cospito.

As his career progressed, Mr. Tirao backed an array of vocalists, including the visiting Americans Josephine Baker and George Maharis. He also performed with Argentine pianist and bandleader Osvaldo Tarantino as well as bandoneon player Rodolfo Mederos before winning a three-year engagement with Piazzolla.

With Piazzolla's blessing, Mr. Tirao left the quintet to work as a soloist, and Piazzolla helped write some of his early arrangements. After Mr. Tirao's debut album as a soloist, "Mi Guitarra, TĂș y Yo" (1971), he went on to collaborate with, among others, Flamenco guitarist Paco de Lucia, who became of one his closest friends.

Mr. Tirao became a fixture on Argentine television and began a tireless schedule of concerts around the world. He developed a broad repertoire of music and expertise on stringed instruments, including banjo, lute and charango.

His recordings featured not only his own compositions but also works by Piazzolla, classical works by Bach and Brahms and audience favorites such as "Concierto de Aranjuez," "Juego Prohibido" and the theme from "Zorba the Greek." He won over such admirers as Brazilian guitarist and composer Baden Powell, whose works he also played to much acclaim.

If there was a criticism of his music, it was that he tended to get carried away with his technical prowess.

The popular Argentine folklore musician Atahualpa Yupanqui pointed out such excesses, using a colorful expression that Mr. Tirao perhaps had too many fingers on his hands.

Mr. Tirao accepted the observation with grace and later added that at the start of his solo career he "was worried too much about not making mistakes. I tried to make it perfect, like a machine, and I sacrificed expression for virtuoso playing," he told the Argentine newspaper Clarin.

"One day, I was going to [the vacation town of] Mar de Plata, listening to myself in the car and thought, 'How horrible, how many notes! And the feeling, where is it?' "

He later described having accomplished an infusion of sentiment most successfully on Franz Schubert's "Ave Maria" because of the number of ticket buyers who told him they cried every time he played it.

Mr. Tirao underwent a religious conversion to evangelical Christianity in the mid-1980s after his son was killed. His daughter, Alejandra, then 17, accidentally shot Gabriel, 14, with a gun both teenagers thought was a toy.

In 2000, Mr. Tirao suffered an embolism while performing in concert, and it took him six years to recover the strength he thought he needed to play. His final album, "Renacer," was released in January and features his daughter on vocals.


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