To experience Love and Death in Buenos Aires, the Melbourne Recital Centre Salon audience needed to imagine themselves in an Argentinean nightclub, ready to tango in a heartbeat, Heather Leviston writes…
From virtual blackout the lights rose to reveal Cosmo Cosmolino making a dramatic entrance in vivid scarlet and black costumes, featuring fishnet, feathers and glitter. Confronted with the challenge of converting the Salon of the MRC into an Argentinean nightclub, at least in terms of ambiance, the five members of this talented ensemble relied on their powers of seduction and atmospheric lighting to compensate for the beautiful but pristine setting with not an iota of sleaze in sight. Unfortunately, even the cabaret style setup that is sometimes used in the Salon would have been impossible given the number of people anxious to hear this popular Melbourne group.
The last time I heard Judy Gunson play was in a crowded, steamy Hungarian restaurant in Chapel Street, where her piano accordion was very much in its element. On this occasion, as compere, she did her very best to summon up the spirit of tango by inviting any tango dancer in the audience to join them for their second number, Astor Piazzolla’s Prologue (Tango Apasionado). While at least one hand went up to admit to being able to dance the tango, it would have taken a very courageous and skilled member of the audience to actually do so. Given Cosmo’s enticing playing, there would have been many willing spirits, but we just had to be content with throwing ourselves into a mental tango.
Playing without music and, with the exception of cellist Helen Mountfort, standing throughout the program, the quintet took advantage of the freedom this gave them to move and to communicate with each other and the audience. The chief thing they communicated was sheer enjoyment. They are so much at home with the style and possibilities for interplay, which this music offers, that much of the program was either composed or arranged by the players.
Opening with Helen Mountfort’s highly danceable, steamy La Mort de Jezebel, Judith Gunson immediately established her credentials as a piano accordionist who knows just how to push an audience’s emotional buttons. Andrea Keeble was equally alluring with her swooning violin solo. In the hands of Cosmo Cosmolino sex and death was executed with panache and unexpected quirky humour.
After the throbbing, stretched lines of Piazzolla’s Prologue, a more serious note was struck with Milonga Para Gardel, dedicated to acclaimed tango singer Carlos Gardel, who perished with his orchestra in a plane crash while on a tour in 1935. Piazzolla would have been on that tour if his father had allowed his 15 year-old to accept Gardel’s invitation to accompany them. Judy Gunson sang Horacio Sanguinetti’s tribute with affecting pathos and intimacy. Her voice is warm, easy and has a colour that lends itself to the style of music that they favour. It was a pity that there was no translation of the words available, even though the spirit of the song was apparent.
An English translation would have been particularly welcome for the two Piazzolla/Borges songs, sung so expressively by Judy Gunson and Dan Witton. In fact, the same could be said of all the songs sung in Latin American Spanish. It would seem that investing in one of their CDs would have been the answer. The woman sitting next to me was humming along to Andrea Keeble’s To Be, obviously a fan who loved their music. Keeble’s duet with double bass player Dan Witton certainly made for very enjoyable listening. Apart from playing and composing his own evocation of knife fighting with Tango, Witton has a suave voice that moves easily between falsetto and full voice and blends beautifully with the voices of both female singers.
Versatility was also apparent in violinist Suzanne Simpson’s collaboration with Andrea Keeble for Truly, the second of the three original pieces inspired by tango. True to the theme of the program, the singer speaks about her lover, who has been violently taken from her. With Keeble and Gunson joining in vocal harmony, it was an attractively melodious expression of what Gunson described as “a woman left waiting alone with sixteen children”.
As an extra dimension to the program, Cosmo Cosmolino whipped up plenty of excitement with their arrangement of Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody, No.2 and seduced with some beautiful cello playing in their version of Erik Satie’s Gnossienne, No.3. Although neither piece is tango, the dance-like element of both was prominent.
For the final item, the invitation was once again extended to join the players in their favourite Piazzolla tango number, Libertango. Again, no takers. Perhaps when Cosmo Cosmolina perform Part 2 of Love and Death in Buenos Aires there might, either by accident or design, be somebody in the audience who not only “feels the urge”, as Judy Gunson put it, but is willing to take up her offer. If not, the audience will just have to sit back and be transported by the joy and passion created by this excellent band of musicians.