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The work of  Latin Grammy-winning Argentine composer and pianist Fernando Otero often blurs the line between popular and classical music. Romance, his debut in Soundbrush Records, is unabashedly 21st Century chamber music.

This collection of short original compositions, rich in detail but still sized for the Twitter age, draws from traditional elements of Argentine folk music and tango but remains decidedly cosmopolitan. It’s music meticulously constructed that, at times, suggests the deceptive freedom and casualness of a jazz improvisation. It’s also a recording that brings back familiar colors in Otero’s palette — violin, viola, cello and clarinet — but also something new, voices, as much a glance back to his personal history, growing up the son of an international lyric singer, as an artistic choice.

Dramatic and playful, complex but also deeply heartfelt, this Romance, “is not about boy-meets-girl,” says Otero, “but the idea of searching in the depths of beauty.”

“Mr. Otero hails from Argentina, where romance has often been cast as a kinetic pursuit. The expressive drama of tango generally animates his compositions, which also involve aspects of classical chamber music and jazz improvisation.” Nate Chinen, NY Times

“An eclectic chamber sensibility in an oeuvre where the idioms of Latin American, jazz, and European classical musics intertwine.” Roots World

“Otero is a seriously talented pianist, and his orchestrations are equal parts Bernard Herrmann and Charlie Parker. That is, they alternate between jagged suspenseful crescendos and long sinuous melodies. This music bounds out of the speakers and leaps into every corner of the room at once, exhilarating but also bewildering.” JAZZIZ

Fernando Otero, piano, melodica
Nicholas Danielson, violin
Lev ‘Ljova’ Zhurbin, viola
Adam Fisher, violoncello
Pablo Aslan, bass
Ivan Barenboim, clarinet and bass clarinet
Josefina Scaglione, vocals on “Until The Dawn”
Kristin Norderval, vocals
Dana Hanchard ,vocals

All Compositions by Fernando Otero
Warner-Tamerlane Publishing Corp (BMI) & XTango Music (BMI)

Recorded June 2012 at Systems Two Studios, Brooklyn, New York
Engineer: Joe Marciano
Assistants:  Max Ross and Zak Kazanski

Mixed at Systems Two Studios
Engineer: Max Ross

Additional Editing: Luis Bacque

Design: Mariano Gil
Liner Notes: Fernando Gonzalez

Photos: Luis Antonio Rodriguez “Laro”
Video: David Dixon

Executive Producer: Roger Davidson
Associate Producer: Alexandra Aron

Produced by Pablo Aslan

Sounds Heard: Fernando Otero—Romance
By Frank J. Oteri: NewMusicBox
March 12, 2013

I’ve long been a huge fan of tango music and the various Piazzolla and post-Piazzolla extensions of what tango could be. In 2011, in search of sheet music and recordings that were nearly impossible to find in the United States, I trekked down to South America where I even wound up getting rudimentary tango lessons at Buenos Aires’s legendary Bar Sur. (I’m glad there’s no video evidence of that.)

A few years before that, I was very excited about Pagina de Buenos Aires, a 2008 Nonesuch album featuring latter day Tango Nuevo instrumental music in a variety of formats—solo piano, piano and violin duets, small chamber ensemble, even a full orchestra—showcasing pianist/composer Fernando Otero, whose name was completely new to me at that point. Because of the similarity of our names, I immediately felt a slight tinge of kinship with him, but—the coincidence of that aside—the variety of moods and textures that Otero evoked from this musical tradition is what ultimately attracted me to the disc. Sadly, since all the press materials I was sent about the CD at that time identified Otero as Argentinian, I never considered it potential fodder for NewMusicBox. However, upon receiving his latest recording, Romance, in the mail recently, I learned that Otero actually lives in far less exotic Brooklyn! And for his latest outing he has actually utilized the talents of some of NYC’s finest genre-hopping musicians, among them vocalists Dana Hanchard and Kristin Nordeval, violist Lev ‘Ljova’ Zhurbin, and fellow Argentine-American Pablo Aslan, a bassist extraordinaire whose own 2004 album Avantango is a must hear for anyone interested in rhythmically based small ensemble improvised music. So I knew I had to write something about Otero’s Romance on these pages.

Throughout Romance Otero ratchets up the contemporary classical music allusions that were already in evidence on Pagina de Buenos Aires, e.g. chamber music sensibilities, a post-chromatic—and at times post-post-minimalist—approach to harmonic and form. But on the new album he also explores and combines many other musical idioms ranging from jazz to musical theatre and beyond. According to the disc’s program annotator, Miami-based music journalist Fernando González, its 11 tracks are intended to be consumed either individually or in any sequence the listener desires, a format suggested by the famous Argentinian novel Hopscotch by Julio Cortázar in which variable sequences for reading the chapters are part of the book’s design. While Hopscotch is a great read, it’s a far more demanding proposition than listening to Otero’s Romance in whatever order you ultimately choose to do so. Besides, listening to it in your own order is perhaps inevitable given the ubiquity of shuffle mode nowadays. Still, I felt compelled to listen to it, the first few times around at least, in the released sequence which, because of its variety of tempos and styles, is an ideal way to experience this music.

“Ojos Que Se Abren Brillantes” opens sans piano, with melodica, clarinet and strings playing a striking, almost speech-like unison melodic line that is somewhat reminiscent of the vocal melodies in the slower movements of Steve Reich’s Tehillim and The Desert Music, albeit minus those compositions’ procedural underpinnings. The piano enters approximately midway through, but its role is supportive rather than soloistic. In “Arbolitos,” the piano has a more prominent role, sharing more straight-forward sounding melodies in unison with the strings. “Manifestación” starts off as a seemingly meditative piano and violin duet but soon veers off into quirkier, more unpredictable terrain as almost Chick Corea-like solo piano flourishes keep interrupting the flow. Things start really percolating, however, in “Piringundín de Almagro.” It’s brimming with the same kinds of unstable harmonic tensions that help to give Piazzolla’s music its signature earthy, visceral drive. But Otero also shows in his approach that he has a kinship with the music of John Adams. On the other hand, the ensuing “En Contacto Permanente,” with its wordless vocals, is far more ethereal. Gonzalez likens it to Villa-Lobos’s famous Bachianas Brasilieras No. 5, a haunting composition for wordless soprano and an ensemble of eight cellos. I also hear in it echoes of Les Baxter, the one-time king of Space Age Bachelor Pad Music whose 1951 Ritual of the Savage is nevertheless one of the most stunning examples of how to effectively incorporate wordless vocals into an orchestration.

In the original album order, “En Contacto Permanente” is followed by Preludio 4, a whirlwind piano solo that showcases Otero’s formidable keyboard prowess. (The earlier Pagina de Buenos Aires album featured his Preludio 19, so there are undoubtedly enough of these preludes for an intrepid pianist to explore as a standalone project; it would be nice to hear a whole program of them.) But Romance is as much a showcase for Otero’s compositions as his playing, so on the subsequent “Luz Del Primer Dia” the piano disappears entirely and the music, scored just for clarinet and strings, is a tender, almost Copland-esque pastorale. But, of course, the clarinet can also be down and dirty and the next track, “En La Tierra Sagrada,” opens with an impassioned multiphonic skwonk from clarinetist Ivan Barenboim which is particularly unsettling after the relative serenity of the previous piece. According to González, “En La Tierra Sagrada” was created in memory of Otero’s mother, the internationally acclaimed Argentine singer and actress Elsa Marval, who died in 2010. A mournful quality remains throughout the entire composition as the solo role is constantly traded between the members of the ensemble.

“Criatures de la Noche” is another piano solo, but this time the music, though still virtuosic, is more harmonically ambiguous and introspective. The frenetic, high octane “Cancha de Bochas” marks a return to more upbeat music. But while it seems on the surface to be another frenetic Piazzolla-esque romp, replete with the legendary Nuevo Tango progenitor’s signature extended string techniques, it contains a few surprises that are entirely its own. The violin was a constant presence in Piazzolla’s ensembles and it is herein as well, but the addition of a viola, which takes the first solo, adds a deeper, more mysterious melodic layer. The closer, “Until The Dawn,” introduces yet another new element—lyrics. It is also the sole appearance on the disc of musical theatre singer Josefina Scaglione. Scaglione is probably best known for her appearance as Maria in the 2009 Broadway revival of West Side Story and Otero has fashioned a song for her here that is very much in the tradition of the sophisticated songs of WSS creators Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim. It makes me eager to hear an entire musical by him one day.

Fernando Otero’s Ironically Titled Romance: Best Album of the Year?
by delarue: Lucid Culture
March 1, 2013

Argentinian-born pianist/composer Fernando Otero won the Latin Grammy in the classical category in 2010 for his album Vital. That was a darkly beautiful record, but his new one, Romance, is even better. It’s a series of themes and variations in the style of a classical sonata, artfully split between instruments, interchanging between time signatures, interwoven like a secret code. Inspired by Argentine writer and clarinetist Julio Cortázar’s novel Hopscotch, it invites the listener to decide on a “modular” sequence of tracks, perhaps a wry nod to the reality of how listeners work in the iphone era. Taken in sequence, this is a harrowing ride that ends unresolved; however, if one plays the tracks in reverse order – or uses the austerely balletesque opening track as a conclusion – the grimness lifts considerably.

As he did with Vital, Otero works subtle mood shifts, but a haunted sensibility that’s often downright macabre lingers throughout the eleven tracks here. Otero plays with a murky elegance on all of them (in contrast to his often brutal attack on the keys, live in concert), yet the piano is not always the central instrument here. The ensemble behind him rises to the challenge of blending jazz-tinged neoromantic themes with new and classic tango within an overall ambience that defines the concept of noir. This is music raging, sometimes simmering, sometimes dancing, sometimes shivering against the dying of the light. This is a great album, a classic album, an achievement that ranks with the greatest work of Chopin, or Miles Davis, or Piazzolla, all of whom it resembles to some extent. It’s probably the best album of the year in any style of music. Otero reasserts himself as one of this era’s most important, compelling composers, and he covers a lot of ground. Otero and his ensemble are playing the cd release show tomorrow night, March 2 at the 92YTribeca at 9 PM. You have been warned.
A ghost-girl choir of Josefina Scaglione, Kristin Norderval and Dana Hanchard takes centerstage in the album’s most haunting moments. There’s a chilling, Satie-esque theme introduced by the piano that the strings pick up later on, and then the choir. Where will it end up? That’s the worrisome part. Otero works the entire spectrum of each instrument’s range, counterintuitively: the lows from Ljova Zhurbin’s viola, the highs from Adam Fisher’s cello, bassist Pablo Aslan switching in a split second from an elegant pulse to mournful bowed lines. Ivan Barenboim also switches between plaintive clarinet and brooding bass clarinet, running the gamut from jaunty optimism to sheer despair. Nicolas Danielson’s violin remains the one constant alongside the piano, a cynical dialectic of sorts.

Dreamy Tschaikovskian melodicism jostles against creepy, morose chromatics, agitated Mingus urban bustle, rapidfire two-handed Schumannesque stampedes with a surreal Twin Peaks glimmer and Shostakovian anguish. Stern classical scales quash any distant, tentative hope echoing from the choir; tiptoeing strings hand off to plaintive clarinet over resonant deadpool piano that rises only to an elegaic gleam. At this point, it’s pointless to argue against this album for best of 2013.

Fernando Otero–“Romance” CD Launch at 92Y Tribeca
by Sherri Rase: QonStage

March 2 was a very special day in Tribeca. Fernando Otero and more than half a dozen of his closest friends, who all ALSO happen to be composers, launched Otero’s new CD “Romance” with a fierce and passionate energy that electrified the audience. And it all started with a duet of piano and violin.

From the moment Nick Danielson began to play his violin, he and Otero were synchronous as only long-term collaborators may be. This was especially evident in an energetic phrase where it was as if one brain controlled each instrument. Little did the audience realize at the time that this musical synchronous orbit would permeate the entire body of musicians, and that was truly something to hear.

Otero added to his spicy mélange a little at a time. Each musician got a chance to shine in something special that seemed written especially for him or her, and the virtuosity of each person received appreciation, so that we would truly understand what was going in to this spicy and modern concert. Adam Fisher was next to join and his piece with Danielson and Otero, especially with the human timbre of the cello’s voicing, was sweeping and passionately physical. Pablo Aslan on bass utilized techniques that mirrored what Otero was doing with the piano–wringing every type of expression from the instrument itself through playing above and below the bridge, with and without bow and in Otero’s case, strumming, thrumming, and muting the piano strings by hand. Ljova Zhurbin’s viola was next, and that instrument also has a very human voice. Juan Pablo Jofre Romarion introduced many of us to the Bandoneón, an Argentine instrument that is primarily part of tango music. Imagine a square concertina on steroids. Romarion had to brace the instrument on his knee, and the sound became world music. Ivan Barenboim lent clarinet and saxophone to the lush and richly colored tapestry of sound and the final grace notes were added by vocalists Kristin Norderval and Maria Brodskaya.

Several times during the course of the two-hour non-stop experience, it was especially clear that the musicians were enjoying themselves. There is a moment for all of us when we are “in the zone” with the team, the group, the players when we collaborate, and Fisher was rapt and smiling with great satisfaction when Norderval added rich vocalise–challenging songs without words–that accentuated the mood. All musicians transcended the music to make something larger together than mere notes on paper. Otero knows his chemistry.

The final piece featured Maria Brodskaya on vocals in the short piece that finishes the CD. There was an encore and thunderous applause. Finally, coming full circle round, through stories told in words as well as in music, the charming Fernando Otero grabbed a Sharpie and began the concert of chemistry anew, meeting fans, friends, and new lovers of contemporary classical music.

Notes on Romance (Soundbrush)
by Fernando Otero

For Romance I had the idea of a “concept album” -- think The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s with its recurrent themes and the notion of the record as one large composition. I was interested in the idea of taking certain themes and re-interpreting them, explore them in different settings, expressing the same idea different ways. In truth we are not very far from the thinking of a symphonic composer -- theme and variations.

Also within the recording, the pieces are modular. Because there are recurrent themes and atmospheres, two or more pieces can be heard as a suite within the larger structure of the album.
The first and last track for example. Or “Piringundin de Almagro” and “Cancha de Bochas.” But there are many possibilities and I leave them open to the listener.

When I write I’m not thinking images or stories. It’s about finding tools to express emotion, say tenderness for example. And my writing has never been about formal experimentation or intellectual games -- how can we go from this harmony to that one or how can we go from 5/8 here to 11/8 there. For me composing has to do with emotion and finding ways to address that.

There is a spiritual undercurrent in my music but I’m not trying to manipulate the listener in some particular way or proselytize him or her about any one particular message. Rather, it has to do with living a life connected to the spiritual.

1 - Ojos Que Se Abren Brillantes (Eyes That Open Sparkling) 4:36 It’s a bit like the Overture of the álbum. It’s connected by certain melodic passages to to the closing piece “Until the dawn.” It’s also related to “Luz del Primer Dia” but in that case more by atmosphere than thematically.

2 - Arbolitos  (Little Trees) 4:46 It’s a piece that first appeared on my first álbum, XTango. It’s one of the first pieces I ever wrote. It’s a lullaby that I actually wrote for my mom. As a kid, my mom, like many parents, used to sing me to sleep and I told her one day I would write a song for her. I was 7. This was it. It was one of her favorite pieces.
[Otero’s late mother, Elsa Marval, was an international lyric singer. She passed a year and a half ago after a long illness.]

3 - Manifestación (Manifestation)    4:49 This was a piece I wrote to play as a duo with [violinist] Nick Danielson. I was looking for a waltz of certain depth but not sentimental, and also a piece that would give us room to play. In Spanish Manifestación can be understood as Demonstration. In this case it´s about how desires, wishes or emotions are manifested.

4 - Piringundín de Almagro (“Piringundín” is Buenos Aires slang for low-rent club, dance hall or bar. Low rent club in Almagro) 2:50 This piece is part of Musica de Buenos Aires, a four movement dance suite. It opened with “Piringundín,” which appeared in Paginas de Buenos Aires,  then “Piringundín de Almagro,” a slow movement “La Vista Gorda,” and it closed with “Cancha de Bochas” which is also included here. This was a suite danced by the male dancers in the company just like early tango was danced by men.

5 - En Contacto Permanente (In Permanent Contact)     5:25 This is a slow milonga and to my mind it has the feel of a mass -- because of its density, the open spaces, the women’s voices. It also has the influence of [Heitor] Villa Lobos’ “Bachianas Brasileiras No 5,” a piece that moves me.

6 - Preludio 4 (Prelude No. 4) 4:41 It’s a piano solo piece and showcases a certain form of playing with crossing hands technique, something I use quite a bit. And I do perhaps for two reasons: I studied drumming (drum kit) and crossing hands is very common in that instrument. And also because in the guitar, especially playing milonga, the right hand plays the bass lines on the lower (sounding) strings and at some point I wanted to translate that to the piano.

7 - Luz Del Primer Día     (Light of the First Day) 4:19 This was a piece originally written for orchestra, using large sound blocks with strings and brass. I just wanted to try a chamber version. The challenge here was to make the would-be section lines interesting for the single players. For me it’s important that the players playing my music are engaged and having a good time.

8 - En La Tierra Sagrada (In the Sacred Land) 3:55 In this case the writing did have a visual source: This piece was originally written for a film, but it was never used.

9 - Criaturas de la Noche (Creatures of the night) 4:30 It’s a waltz but a porteño waltz. (Porteño or people of the port, is the nickname for people of Buenos Aires a port city) It´s night music and has to do with those compositions, those music creatures, that appear in the middle of the night and demand your attention -- even if it´s 2 a.m.
I´m not fighting them anymore. It is what it is.

10 - Cancha de Bochas (Bocce field)    3:28 See “Piringundin de Almagro.”

11 - Until The Dawn 5:19 Josefina [Scaglione] who sings this song, had been singing in my ensemble for awhile. She knew I had written songs so she asked me to write a song with lyrics. It’s about love but not boy-girl, relationship love but universal love. The model I used obviously is not pop but more from lieder and lyric songs. After all that has to do with the environment of classical music and lyric singing I grew up with at home. I also thought it was the right way to end the album because it gave me the feeling of writing an epilogue, of closing an era.