Dressed in a striped, red vest reminiscent of traditional Spanish flamenco styles, Daniel Rojas graced the full-house audience at the ABC’s Eugene Goossens Hall with a beaming smile and kicked the night off with a riveting suite of some of Piazzolla’s most celebrated tangos, arranged by Rojas for string orchestra and piano and conducted by Artistic Director and Chief Conductor Sarah-Grace Williams.

TMO Tangos and TchaikovskyThe Metropolitan Orchestra’s Tangos & Tchaikovsky. Photo supplied

Rojas took command of the piano with flair in the virtuosic runs and chords of Libertango, which displayed both jazz and classical influence in its extended harmonies. Such runs and chords appeared frequently throughout the suite, whilst the strings emphasised them and served as rhythmic support. Reaching the climax towards the end of Libertango, Rojas’ engagement and raw energy transferred to the audience as he almost jumped off the stool in excitement, accompanying the music with outbursts of “ehh” and “ahh”, all leading towards the climactic end where he glissandoed the full breadth of the piano. The second movement began with a lyrical and poignant duet between the piano and first desk cello, contrasting the flamboyant Libertango. This movement was his own composition, named Navegar, and in his program note Rojas mentions the influence of Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata, which was reflected in the oscillating, almost continuous, broken chords in the left hand.

The third movement was an arrangement of Piazzolla’s Le Grand Tango and staying true to its original dedicatee ­– Rostropovich (though it was Yo-Yo Ma who made it famous) – featured a cello solo. TMO’s principal cellist Ezmi Pepper separated herself from the section to sit at a personal stand and the movement followed the lyrical style of Navegar. But unfortunately, as the music grew, there were moments where the sound of the solo cello was lost in the dense sea of lower strings directly behind. Extended techniques were also explored, as Rojas slapped the side of the piano and then the piano stand for different percussive sounds. The fourth and final movement, La Gran Salsa – written by Rojas in response to Le Grand Tango – had the greatest jazz and blues influences. Rojas’ buoyant and vigorous performance only furthered the liveliness of his music and left the audience bobbing their heads in the aftermath. Rojas ended the first half of the concert with a light and pleasant folk dance encore from his Peruvian heritage, Valicha.

Tchaikovsky’s luscious and rich Serenade for Strings, written directly after his infamous 1812 Overture and intended as a dedication to Mozart, was a work that Tchaikovsky himself was immensely proud of and “violently in love with.” The TMO’s execution, however, sadly did not altogether do justice to the work. While the tone of the basses was brilliant and absolutely blended, there were problems at the higher end of the strings. In the lyrical third movement Elegy, the melody starting from the basses – who executed it with grace – was reiterated by the viola section, whose tone was a tad too harsh and punched out in the context of the movement, before finally making its way to the violins, where it fell apart, tonally. The timbre of the violins, particularly in the firsts, was frequently not as well-blended with the rest of the ensemble as it could have been, owing to a visible lack of uniformity in the bowings, which seemed to affect both sound and intonation. Aside from these technical problems – and moments where climaxes weren’t quite reached convincingly, the phrasing falling just short of something magical – the Serenade was competently performed, and perhaps, on reflection, simply needed a few more rehearsals to marinate and time to settle. The exciting essence of the night remained, however, and audience members departed with the sound of dances in their ears.