Tango was king in the Buenos Aires home where Leonardo Suarez Paz was raised. His father, Fernando, is a famous violinist specializing in tango; his mother, Beatriz, is a well-known tango singer. Not surprisingly, Suarez Paz, now 35, was trained in violin, voice, and dance — all in the tango tradition.
When it came time for him to decide on his own career, Suarez Paz at first opted for a more classical route. “I wanted to go in another direction,” he says in a telephone interview from his New York City home. “I was studying in a conservatory and was planning a career as a classical violinist. But tango was in my blood. I was doing it before I was born.”
Tango won. Today, Suarez Paz is a prominent tango musician with an international reputation. He will appear with Cuartetango, the string quartet he founded 17 years ago, at the Peddie School’s Mount-Burke Theater on Saturday, May 19.
The quartet is the only string ensemble of its kind to devote itself to tango. The musicians use western classical instruments to fuse traditional tango with music of urban American culture, which Suarez Paz has absorbed since moving from Argentina to New York a decade ago. Their repertory includes works by famed tango composers such as Astor Piazzolla and Osvaldo Pugliese as well as new music by contemporary composers. Dance and song figure into the equation along with string music, and the multi-talented Suarez Paz does it all.
“I dance with my partner and there is another couple, and I also sing,” he says. “It’s a lot of training to do all of that. It’s like running a marathon or a triathalon. But I love it.” At the May 19 performance he will dance with Mariana Fresno.
Suarez Paz was eight when he began studying violin, opera, and dance. As a teenager, he was offered a violin scholarship to famed violinist Yehudi Menuhin’s Menuhin Academy in Gstaad, Switzerland. “I was young, and my father asked me, ‘Are you sure?’ I said yes, and he said, ‘You have time, you should explore more,’” Suarez Pez says. “I said, ‘What are you saying to me? I should become like you?’ He said, ‘Not everyone has the gift you have, and there are a lot of classical players out there. You have this other thing, tango, that you can explore.’ I thought about it, and I decided to take his advice.”
Suarez Paz redefined his focus but classical music remained a part of his life. As a professional violinist he has performed with major orchestras in Buenos Aires. From 1990 to 1997 he was a soloist with several international orchestras. Last year he joined New Jersey-born tap dancer Savion Glover in his “Classical Savion” program in New York and which also came to McCarter Theater.
Suarez Paz also has a passion for jazz. It is an important element of Cuartetango and also figures highly in the performing he does outside the quartet. He is a jazz composer as well as performer, and his credits include appearances with Cody Moffet’s ensemble Jambalaya, Stanley Jordan, Regina Carter, the Sugar Hill Quartet in Harlem, and Wynton Marsalis and the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra.
“Tango and jazz are kind of family members,” he says. “They are related in time. We are finding now, because of computers and things like that that we didn’t have before, some things (in tango and jazz) that are very close harmonically. The rhythm is very different. Tango likes to have different rhythms for the same song, a slower part and a faster part, while jazz doesn’t. But they are natural partners.”
Tango first appeared in Argentina in the mid-19th century. Its golden age is generally considered to have started around 1935, when dancers and classically-trained musicians, as well as composers, arrangers, lyricists, and singers all became part of the rage. There were numerous orchestras specializing in tango. By the late 1940s the music and dance began to separate as musicians started to play for concert audiences, recordings, or radio programs. The music was to be listened to, not just danced to.
Astor Piazzolla, who played the unique tango instrument known as the bandoneon, left Buenos Aires for Paris in 1950 to study classical composition with pianist Nadia Boulanger. It is Piazzolla who is credited with creating “Tango Nuevo,” which combined elements of tango, jazz, and classical ideas. His compositions became a kind of backbone of the art form.
The hit show “Tango Argentino” in 1983 rekindled an interest in tango not just in Argentina but around the globe. Since then shows including “Forever Tango” and “Tango x 2” have drawn crowds to Broadway and on tour. Dance studios offering Argentine tango have sprung up and multiplied.
“It is this time we are living in — the war,” says Suarez Paz when asked to explain the popularity of tango today. “And the roles of man and woman are getting the same, you know? Tango has roles and they are very important. The man has the man’s role, the woman has the woman’s role. People like that sexuality. They are attracted by that, and I think that’s one of the main things.”
Cuartetango plays intimate halls like the Mount-Burke as well as much larger theaters including the New Jersey Performing Arts Center in Newark. Three years ago the ensemble performed at the 3,800-seat Teatro Colon in Buenos Aires.
The ensemble aims for versatility, honoring the art form’s past while searching out its future. “We play older tangos, from the golden age of the ’40s and ’50s, and also new works,” Suarez Paz says. “My father was a player with Piazzolla, and I have a big connection with that and other big creators of the Nuevo Tango but I also look for contemporary pieces.”
At the May 19 concert, “people will hear other kinds of arrangements of tango than they are used to hearing,” he says. “I am always looking for something very serious to play. I am also always trying to develop the groove with a string quartet. When you have a string quartet to develop the right beat and the right groove is difficult because they are coming from classical. It’s a discussion we are always having.”
While music dominates most of his energy, Suarez Paz still devotes significant attention to dance. Currently, he is teaching tango to two young students, aged nine and ten, from the New York City Ballet’s School of American Ballet. He played violin for ballet star Julio Bocca’s Bocca Tango company a few years ago.
“There are all these fusions,” he says. “They don’t try to be tango. They are what they are. I don’t like when people try to dance or play tango and do it the wrong way. I love when it’s real, when they do what they really feel, what is real to them.”
Suarez Paz returns to Buenos Aires when he can. It is there, he says, that tango is so much a part of life. “In the taxis, they are listening to it. And there are a million places to dance tango every day,” he says. “It’s just in our blood.”
Cuartetango String Quartet, Saturday, May 19, 8 p.m. Community Arts Partnership at the Peddie School, Mount-Burke Theater, Peddie School, Hightstown. Program includes tango songs, poetry, and dance. $20. 609-490-7550.