I would like to share a piece that I love that was included in the 2008 K-drama, Beethoven Virus, starring Kim Myung-min, Lee Ji-ah and Jang Geun-suk. When the cellist, Jung Hee-yun (Song Ok-sook), began to play this stellar work, I was ecstatic to see a solo cellist on the small screen.
Like most of the pieces in the drama, this work is a staple of classical literature. The piece is fun, sensual and invigorating. I was also pleased to see that Song Ok-sook had learned the basics of the cello. Although she was not the cellist we actually heard, her fingers and bow were perfectly in time with the music – a detail that is often ignored by producers of films and dramas.
Which piece did she play? It is Astor Piazzola’s Libertango (1974).
Piazzolla (1921-1992) was a virtuoso bandoneónist. The bandoneón is an instrument that is best known for the unique sound it gives to the tango orchestra. It is like an accordion and has bellows to produce sound and instead of keys, it has buttons on either side.
Piazzolla was also the inventor of a new form of tango aptly, and ironically, named “nuevo tango”. This new form incorporated Western musical elements (primarily jazz) with the traditional Argentine tango. It angered some traditionalists as such things tend to do, but most musicians and listeners eagerly accepted the new style of composition.
The video below is one of the most epic performances of the 1974 Libertango by Yo Yo Ma, a Chinese American world class cellist. He performs with American guitarist Al Di Meola and Argentinian bandoneónist, Nester Marconi.
Take a listen with your body and heart and turn off your mind.
This version is a personal favorite. It’s performed by a tango band consisting of cello, bandoneón, piano, upright bass, guitar and violin. I smile the entire while time listening to this rendition. Not only does the tango make you feel sexy and make you want to dance, but it stirs the soul.
When listening to it, I imagine myself walking along a long road underneath a hot sun and watching people go about their daily lives. Then at night they gather around a table to break bread and drink wine. Maybe the tables get pushed aside and a man pulls out a guitar for some impromptu music. A woman and her man draw each other close and lose themselves in movement and in each other. The tango and its music allows people to express their passion for life.
Song Ok-sook’s character in Beethoven Virus plays Astor Piazzola’s Libertango with a full orchestra. The orchestra changes the flavor of the tango. Rather than the intimate sound of a 6-piece band that quietly turns the tango into a searing expression of human lust for life, the orchestra and solo cellist declare the carnal nature of the human condition. Despite the size of the orchestra, this performance seems to reach out and caress each individual of the audience rather than enveloping them as a whole.
As part of the drama, this performance serves as a huge emotional release for the cellist, Jung Hee-yun. She is a repressed housewife who has a husband and child who don’t respect her. Her husband is cheating on her and she is feeling stifled by the fact that she is unappreciated. Her family doesn’t support her desire to play cello. It doesn’t bring in money or do anything for them. They don’t understand how playing her instrument is food for her soul. In this scene, Hee-yun remembers her pain and channels it through her music. The Libertango takes this black spot in her life and transforms it into something beautiful.
Classical music is something that the masses in general do not actively listen to and often disparage. Unbeknownst to them, it is a part of their everyday lives. It plays while one is on hold with the credit card company or waiting in line at a store. It plays as an actor, model or sports star promotes a product in a commercial. It plays unobtrusively in the background of one’s favorite films and dramas. Oftentimes it is arranged in a modern style and yet, the essence of the composer’s music and heart shine through. The artist channels the composer’s music and intent, then gives it back to the listener. That is the beauty of music. It is universal. It speaks to everyone involved in each stage of the music making process. Each person may receive a different message, but that is the beauty of art. It simply speaks as we listen.