The little tango monster that could

“El tango es un pensamiento triste que se puede bailar.” Tango is a sad thought that can be danced; or, in critic Clive James’s more succinct version of the great Argentinean musician and lyricist Enrique Santos Discépolo's famous definition: “Tango is a sad thought, dancing.” Discépolo’s words were never far from my mind as I listened to Camerata San Antonio’s Salón Buenos Aires, a recording of the music of composer Miguel del Aguila. It is a gorgeous, beguiling album, by turns — and often in the same track — nostalgic and ferocious, tender and turbulent. While Aguila’s musical roots are firmly set in the rich traditions of his native Uruguay, his is a broadly-ranging, synthetic musical intelligence that draws fruitfully upon jazz, classical, Caribbean, and avant-garde music in order to produce a highly-sophisticated, compulsively-listenable, and absolutely distinctive sound. Small wonder, then, that the album is up for two Latin Grammy Awards, one for best classical composition and one for best classical album.

Camerata San Antonio founder Kenneth Freudigman met Aguila some five years ago at a festival and was taken with his work. “I bothered him and bothered him to send me some music,” said Freudigman at lunch during a break from his day job rehearsing as principal cellist for the San Antonio Symphony. His was joined by his wife, Emily, the other founding member of Camerata SA, who also plays viola for the Symphony. Freudigman finally succeeded in convincing Aguila to let Camerata perform his music, and shortly the flexible chamber group of local symphony musicians was asked to record a whole album of Aguila’s work by the composer himself. “You rescued my little tango monster,” Aguila noted approvingly of Camerata’s early attempts at performing his music.

Aguila was present during the recording process, which resulted in an album unified by a consistently playful, at times even impish, musical élan on the part of both the composer and musicians. “Presto II,” for instance, was written in Vienna, where the composer lived for 10 years, and was intended, as Aguila put it, to mock the Viennese view of the string quartet as a “sacredly serious form.” The resulting work is a delight, but caveat auditor: so infectious are the piece’s angular, agitated rhythms, that listening to this track, or indeed to the album as a whole, in your car may well get you pulled over.

The two multi-part works on the album, the titular “Salón Buenos Aires” in three movements, and the six-part “Clocks,” deserve special mention. The latter, a piano quintet, presents itself as a tour through the history of timekeeping, with movements bearing titles such as “Shelves Full of Clocks,” “Sundial 2000 B.C.,” and “The Old Clock's Story.” “Tango to Dream,” the second movement of the sweet yet menacing “Salón Buenos Aires,” recalls one of the old clock’s themes but transforms it over the course of 10 minutes into a reeling, full-blown tango. Here, and indeed everywhere on Salón Buenos Aires, the musicianship of Camerata San Antonio is on impressive display. That they are virtuosi is a given; far more interesting and far more rare is their ability to play this technically demanding music with the brio, intelligence, and taste that it requires.

It’s possible that the Latin Grammy Award show in Las Vegas will be but the first stop in a celebratory tour for Aguila and Camerata San Antonio; in early December, the chamber group will hear if it’s been nominated for a (non-Latin) Grammy. Not bad for its first album.