In the middle of his recital at the Smithsonian American Art Museum on Sunday afternoon, Carlos César Rodríguez did something intriguing. The Venezuelan-born local pianist teaches at the Levine School of Music, and this performance, presented in the museum’s Steinway Series of free concerts, had a flair perhaps more pedagogical than virtuosic.

What Rodríguez did was illustrate what a tango is by explaining its basic rhythms and then playing — and singing — “Caminito,” a tango composed by Juan de Dios Filiberto to words by Argentine poet Gabino Coria Peñaloza. This demonstration provided a way to understand two more modern versions of the tango, starting with District-born composer Jeffrey Mumford’s “Tango-Variations,” a rhythmically fragmented and dissonant dissection of the form. Rodríguez complemented that with his own improvisation on two themes by the most famous transformer of the tango, Astor Piazzolla.

The rest of the recital paled in comparison, billed by Rodríguez as the musical equivalent of walking through a gallery to look at lots of different paintings. Garden-variety Bach, Mozart, Chopin and Debussy had too many smudged fast notes and general inconsistency of technical finish. The remaining pieces were mostly bagatelles, but at least they were interesting choices, including the experimental, quasi-improvisatory “The Magic Labyrinth” by Cuban composer Aurelio de la Vega and, for whimsical effect, John Cage’s silent etude “4’33”.” Rodríguez spoke at length about each piece, enough that the concert should perhaps have been advertised as a lecture-recital, making the experience more like a docent-led tour through a gallery rather than a spontaneous experience of each canvas.

Downey is a freelance writer.

Carlos Cesar Rodriguez (Tom Radcliffe)