Milva in Tokyo, 1998

The great Italian singer Milva died on April 23. For a while in the 90s and 00s she was an annual visitor to Japan, kind of like the Ventures of canzone, and I caught several of her concerts because Masako at the time did a lot of work for the promoter who brought her to Japan. The following is a review of her joint concert with the bandoneonist Daniel Binelli that I wrote for the Japan Times.

It’s not unusual for an artist’s reputation to soar after his death, but in the case of Astor Piazzolla, the Argentine bandoneonist and tango music composer who died in 1992, the legacy has taken on a separate life of its own. Though successful while he was alive, Piazzolla has in the past several years entered the classical canon as one of the late 20th century’s most significant composers, thanks not only to the current “tango boom,” but also to superstars like cellist Yo-Yo Ma and violinist Gidon Kremer, both of whom recently released best-selling albums of Piazzolla compositions.

As Kremer said in an interview on TBS’s “News 23” last year while he was in Japan for a concert tour, Piazzolla’s newfound popularity as a composer among the classical elite can be attributed to a sudden fin de siecle realization: For better or worse, most of the “serious” music composed in this century has been aimed at other composers. Piazzolla, on the other hand, wrote music for people — music that was not only challenging to play but enjoyable to listen to.

The Italian singer Milva, never one to pass up a chance to exploit a cultural trend, has dedicated her latest “Dramatic Recital” to the music of Piazzolla. Former Dramatic Recitals included programs dedicated to Brecht and Weill, songs that were popular in Europe between the wars, and the music of Edith Piaf. But while some people may raise their eyebrows at the canzone diva’s blatant opportunism, she has more of a right to take advantage of Piazzolla than, say, Ma or Kremer does since she actually toured with the great man back in the 80s.

What’s more, on her current Japan tour, entitled “El Tango de Astor Piazzolla,” she is being accompanied by bandoneonist Daniel Binelli, a musician who, since he spent three years playing alongside and studying with Piazzolla, can lay justifiable claim to the master’s musical legacy, not only as a musician but as a composer.

Though Milva’s name was at the top of the bill, Binelli and his excellent quintet were equal creative partners when they performed at the Tokyo International Forum on June 11. Alternating between Piazzolla compositions (including two written expressly for Milva) and Binelli compositions (including one written expressly for Milva), the recital was as much a tutorial on the musical life of Buenos Aires as it was a showcase for the oversized theatrical expressionism of the saucy, red-haired chanteuse.

In fact, Binelli and his group held forth by themselves on half the numbers. The peculiar genius of Piazzolla’s work is the way it extrapolates the rhythmic fundamentals of the tango into a new kind of formalism that is as compelling to listeners as it is to dancers. Binelli has taken this idea further. His compositions are more angular, more self-consciously “modern” than his teacher’s were. If in concert these works do not sound particularly danceable, that may only be because there were no dancers around to prove otherwise, but my guess is that tangoers would have had a tough time with the time signature changes in a work like Binelli’s “Fugue & Resurrection.”

Milva dances, in a fashion, but what she really does is sing, very loudly and very broadly, in a rich contralto complemented by a thick, juicy slice of Mediterranean ham. There’s some debate as to whether Piazzolla’s music, as melodic as it is, really lends itself to lyrics (his second wife was a singer and he wrote a number of songs for her), but don’t tell that to Milva, who threw herself into the material with the abandon of a Holy Roller.

Dressed in a series of daringly strapless gowns that clashed rather obviously with director Filippo Crivelli’s purposely impoverished-looking set (an unpainted wooden fence meant to represent…what? Some Buenos Aires back alley?) as well as with the musicians’ customary black shirts and slacks, Milva is such a gone showwoman that you can’t help but admire her total disregard for theatrical congruity, even when she kicks off her high heels (as she does at every performance) in a fit of planned impetuousness.

She can even be forgiven for putting lyrics (English, no less) to Piazzolla’s brief gem-perfect instrumental “Libertango” for an encore. After all, this was not a classical concert; it was essentially a cabaret show. And despite his clear acknowledgment of Piazzolla’s highbrow legacy, Binelli was more than happy to match Milva’s campy excesses with some wonderfully ostentatious accompaniment. As the saying goes, it takes two.

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