Features

A Trip to the Argentine

The exhilarating music of Fernando Otero emerges from a post-Piazzolla intersection of tango and classical sounds. BRIAN KELLOW speaks with the Argentine composer–pianist about his heartfelt new CD, Romance — in part, a tribute to his late mother, the well-known singer–actress Elsa Marval.

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Argentine composer-pianist Fernando Otero, whose new CD, Romance, is a tribute to his mother, the late singer–actress Elsa Marval
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Actress, pianist and singer, Elsa Marval, who died in 2010
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For so many artists, having a celebrated parent has proven to be more curse than blessing; in the 1980s and '90s, the remainder bins at Barnes & Noble bookstores overflowed with copies of memoirs in which the children of celebrities spilled their guts about the hardships of living a life just out of the spotlight. Argentine composer-pianist Fernando Otero's story is quite different: his new CD on Soundbrush Records, simply titled Romance, is, among other things, an affectionate tribute to his mother, the well-known singer–actress Elsa Marval, who died in 2010. Otero's ensemble will perform the entire CD on Saturday, March 2, at New York's 92nd Street Y Tribeca. 

Romance is an exhilarating surprise — a collection of beautifully crafted short pieces that are both jazzy and lyrical, brought to life by a superb ensemble of instrumentalists and singers that includes clarinetist Ivan Barenboim and the fine, underrated mezzo-soprano Dana Hanchard, with Otero on piano. Many of the cuts contain sections that sound so spontaneous one might think they were improvised, but Otero claims that every measure of music on the CD was performed come scritto. There are a pair of tango-accented numbers, "Cancha de Bochas" and "Piringundin de Almagro," that continually surprise you with the direction they take. Most memorable of all is the CD's final cut, the haunting, melancholy "Until the Dawn," a five-minute-plus piece that serves as a tribute to Elsa Marval.

"When I was a child," says Otero, "I used to watch my mother on TV Every weekend there would be a film showing that featured her and her voice. I was kind of a spoiled child, because I could see my mother all the time, and hear her on radio and on records. Every time we went somewhere, people could come up to us and ask to take a picture, or to have her autograph, or something like that. As an artist, she had a big impact on me, and she was a key factor in my becoming a musician. I would play piano and sing with her, and she expected me to become a singer, too. I am a singer, but it's not exactly what I do." Otero calls "Until the Dawn" a song "that talks about universal love, not necessarily a boy–girl relationship. I wanted something more open to the listener, so he can put the characters into the piece in the way he wants. I thought it was a nice piece to complete the album." 

Otero composed his first songs when he was ten years old, but he was soon diverted into instrumental music, which has remained the focus of his career. "I discovered string quartets and classical music," he says, "and I said, 'That's for me.' I just didn't think I had something particular to say as a singer. My mother continued to be very important in terms of giving me advice. She would say, 'You'd better slow down and search into the depth of beauty. That was her phrase. She was always respectful, surprised, and supportive. She never criticized me technically — she didn't say things were right or wrong — but she would refer to her own taste and understanding."

Otero is delighted by the current state of the music scene in Buenos Aires. "There are many different styles, which come from folk and tango." And he's thrilled with the end result of Romance. "It's wonderful when the performances bring the music to life in a way that is much better than what you expected. You hear the music you wrote and say, 'Oh … I'm not so bad!'" spacer 

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Current Issue: July 2014 — VOL. 79, NO. 1