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Friday, December 2, 2011

Concert Review: Finnish Tango Takes Manhattan

Avanti! brings a national craze to Zankel Hall.
The veteran: Markus Allan has sung Finnish tangos for 50 years.

On Thursday night, conductor Hannu Lintu led the Finnish chamber ensemble Avanti! in an unexpected and entertaining program focusing on that Argentine musical form turned Finnish national obsession--the tango.

Now, I'm of Finnish descent, but my grandparents got to New York in 1911, two years before the first tango performance in Helsinki introduced this slinky Argentine dance to the Finnish people. My dad had some Finnish tango records, but he also collected polkas by Laase Pilhjama and that's what I think of as traditional Finnish music.

In Finland, the tango caught on in the years following the Winter War with Russia. After fighting both Russian and German forces, the Finns needed a way to decompress. And they found it in slower versions of the tango, almost always in a sad minor key. The national obsession became a craze in the 1990s, with a yearly tango festival in the tiny town of Seinäjoki drawing thousands to dance and compete.

Mr. Lintu led a program that explored the history of the art form in his home country, aided by legendary Finnish singer Markus Allan. Mr. Allan is completing a world tour celebrating 50 years of singing tangos. He proved to have a smooth, engaging baritone voice, and a pleasant onstage manner, capturing the humor and wit in these songs and working closely with the razor-sharp chamber orchestra.

Mr. Allan proved a genial, energetic interpreter, even encouraging the audience to get up and dance. Sadly, only Mr. Hiltunen did, leading a woman from her seat and dancing in the narrow aisle below the lip of the stage.

The singer then took a break to allow Mr. Hintu to present two Finnish waltzes: Oskar Merikanto's Kesäillan Vassi and the most familiar number on the program: Sibelius' Valse Triste, re-arranged for tango orchestra with accordion.

Although constructed on dance rhythms, the melancholy lyrics make these tangos more like lieder. Themes varied, from lost love, to looking toward a better tomorrow (a very Finnish attitude) or reflecting on the natural beauty of the country. 

The program was hosted by actor Tuomas Hiltunen, who provided commentary and context for these marvelous little songs, from the early 1930s tangos of Kullervo Linna and Toivo Kärki, through more modern works that moved a little faster. Highlights included the pensive "Such is the Journey of Life" by Mr. Kärki, and "Fairy Land", which dreams of immigration to abetter world than Finland:  the hills of Sunset Park, the old Finnish neighborhood in Brooklyn.

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