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Upward Trajectory: From the Lithuanian Music Hall in Philadelphia to Lincoln Center in 46 days

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Written by Meredith Klein June 26, 2019

Exactly one month ago, on Sunday, May 26, the Típica Messiez, a new 10-piece Argentine tango orchestra, gave its first performance as part of the Philly Tango Fest to a sold-out crowd.  There was a line around the block to get into the Lithuanian Music Hall (LMH) in Philadelphia, and an overflow room with live video/audio feed was necessary so as not to exceed fire capacity in the 5,500 square foot ballroom of the LMH.  USALA Radio covered the event, broadcasting the concert live to people in 200 different countries.

Típica Messiez – May 26, 2019 – Philly Tango Fest
Típica Messiez – May 26, 2019 – Philly Tango Fest

Forty-six short days later, on Thursday, July 11th, the New York City-based Típica Messiez will make its New York debut, at one of the most important venues in the country: Lincoln Center.  The story of how this happened has a lot to do with this moment in Argentine tango history.

From its origins in the slums of Buenos Aires and Montevideo in the very late 1800s, through its triumphs in the gilded dance halls of the 1950s, the music and dance of Argentine tango emerged and evolved together.  During the “Golden Age” of the 1940s, the most popular orchestras (including those of Juan D’Arienzo, Carlos Di Sarli, and Osvaldo Pugliese) might play 3-4 concerts in a night, with each orchestra’s loyal fans following to dance at each venue in turn. 

Due to a variety of factors – both cultural and political – tango entered a period of steep decline in the mid-1950s.  This decline drove the music and dance apart.  While dance venues progressively closed, and the dance form nearly disappeared, the music migrated into the concert hall, where it continued to grow and evolve, often by mixing elements from other genres, like jazz and classical music.  The innovative compositions of Astor Piazzolla are some of the best-known examples.

When Argentine tango started its comeback as a dance form in the early 1990s, the dance and music communities were in an awkward relationship with one another.  The dancers largely found contemporary tango music performance to be undanceable, and routinely rejected modern and live tango music in favor of recordings from the 1920s through 1950s.  Today, you can google “milonga” (an Argentine tango social dance) and go dancing in most major cities (and many minor ones) on earth any day of the week.  And you will still be dancing almost exclusively to scratchy recordings from nearly a century ago!  On the other hand, the musicians were somewhat peeved that tango dancers showed so little interest in their efforts to keep tango alive through their hard work arranging, composing and performing tango music.

The worldwide community of tango dancers has grown larger every single day since 1995 (while it would be hard to find stats to prove anything about this under-the-radar community, it is definitely the case).  This has taken place in the most grass-roots way possible, through the individual efforts of countless tango organizers and teachers.  A tipping point was reached in the past decade when tango communities and events, especially in large cities like Buenos Aires, Berlin and Istanbul, finally were robust enough to consider hiring tango bands, and even tango orchestras, on a regular basis.  All of a sudden, orquestas tipicas (complete tango orchestras of 8-12 musicians) were in demand for social dance events, and so tango musicians began to re-focus their arrangements and performance style to meet the needs of tango social dancers.  Groups like La Juan D’Arienzo, Orquesta Romantica Milonguera and Solo Tango Orchestra became world-famous.

Still, the United States lagged behind.  Due to the complexity and cost of securing artist visas, this country regularly had fewer professional tango musicians and tango dancers living and working than was common in Europe or Asia.

In January 2017, Argentine pianist Emiliano Messiez played in Philadelphia for the first time as the fill-in pianist at a concert / milonga at the Barnes Foundation, at the invitation of the Philadelphia Argentine Tango School.  He had moved from Buenos Aires just five months before.  The audience latched on to the sheer catchiness of his playing.  Over the next two years, he would play in Philadelphia 20 more times, directing smaller and bigger groups, in tiny and huge venues.  Every time, the audience wanted more.

Pianist Emiliano Messiez performs with dancers, Andres Amarilla & Meredith Klein – January 6, 2017 – Barnes Foundation
Pianist Emiliano Messiez performs his composition, “Impressions,” an homage to Claude Debussy, with violinist Nastasja Vojnovic, and dancers, Andres Amarilla & Meredith Klein – December 7, 2018 – Barnes Foundation

In March 2019, the Philadelphia Argentine Tango School created the Típica Campaign to support the launch of a new tango orchestra, directed by Emiliano Messiez.  The campaign quickly exceeded its modest $7,000 goal, raising $8,300 (some of it off-line) to make the new orchestra, the Tipica Messiez, possible.  As mentioned above, its debut at the Philly Tango Fest (May 2019) was an unqualified success.  On Thursday, July 11, when the orchestra makes its New York City debut at Lincoln Center, as part of the Midsummer Night Swing event, a chartered bus from Philly will deliver 40 tangueros to dance under the stars at Damrosch Park and celebrate the orchestra that they made possible!