Conductor Saul Zaks embraces the ends of the world (Interview)

Saul Zaks is a Latin Grammy-nominated conductor from Argentina, who lives and works in Denmark.

In 2016 Zaks’ Sax to Tango (ZOHO Music) earned a Latin Grammy nomination for “Best Tango Album.” The album features famous Tangos by Astor Piazzolla, Pablo Ziegler, and others. Zaks conducted the University of Southern Denmark Symphony Orchestra, with saxophone soloist Julio Botti. The album was produced by Ziegler who gained fame as Piazzolla’s last pianist.

Zaks is also known for conducting the MisaTango Choir Festival in Vienna, Austria with Argentine composer and pianist Martín Palmeri. In Winter 2018 the Festival travels to Cuba. In Spring 2019, it travels to Buenos Aires.

Zaks was in New York City to conduct the world premiere of Martin Palmieri’s Tango Credo in the DCINY presentation of Viva La Musica de Argentina at David Geffen Hall in Lincoln Center.

Saul Zaks and Ximena Ojeda at Chimichurri Grill East NYC

Maestro Saul Zaks and Ximena Ojeda at Chimichurri Grill East in the Upper East Side
He spent time with Ximena Ojeda at Chimichurri Grill East, New York’s newest Argentine restaurant and bar in the Upper East Side. Maestro Zaks said, “You chose the right place. The pasta tastes just like home.”

Zaks should know because he has real Tango roots. He is from Abasto, Buenos Aires, one of the neighborhoods where the Tango was born. His house was down the street from the home of legendary Tango singer Carlos Gardel.

Zaks left Argentina in the late 1970s. He moved to Israel and lived on a kibbutz for a decade before settling in Denmark where he built a music career and raised a family.

The Body Reacts From Experience

XIMENA: What is your approach to conducting?

ZAKS: I read the story in the score, consider the person who wrote the music, the period when the piece was written, and the ensemble.

From there I deal with instrumentation and technical aspects like tempo. If there is a soloist, I have to think how to conduct for them. Then I come to the orchestra.

After studying the music, I don’t worry. My body just reacts from my experience.

It is very simple. When this pasta comes, I know what to do. I don’t think. I could do this Tai Chi thing, but it won’t sound like anything. The real question is what do the performers need from me to bring the music out of them?

The Essence is the Embrace

XIMENA: It sounds very metaphysical.

ZAKS: It is about working with what you have. I like to cook. A conductor might say, well tonight I want to eat caviar. They open the fridge and find a little bit of milk and cornflakes. You cannot make caviar from that.

So in my first rehearsal of Tango Credo I opened the fridge. Maestro Binelli played. I heard what the composer Martin Palmieri had in mind. Tomorrow Carla, the soloist, will come and I can hear her. From there we build it up.

What brings a performance to the top is this process of embracing and giving the singers the feeling that they are doing something important.

I have to give everything. I have to be the conductor. I have to be the psychiatrist. I have to be the dog, the mother, the father, the sons in the distance. I have to embrace all those things.

XIMENA: Do you dance Tango?

ZAKS: I love to dance.

XIMENA: So is the essence of Saul Zaks conductor your embrace?

ZAKS: Yes.

Play Tango Dirty For Me

XIMENA: How are you planning to conduct Tango Credo?

ZAKS: First I bring all the people together. We meet. They play. We start the piece. We finish. Psychologically it gives everyone a good feeling that you can start and you can finish. It doesn’t matter how many teeth they lose. It doesn’t matter who dies in the middle. We start, we finish, I listen.

At my MisaTango Festival in Vienna, we started the first performance this last February. The orchestra is a very good young orchestra from Munich, Germany. They play without a conductor.

They were chosen to be the orchestra of the festival. They studied. I flew to Munich for a weekend. They were on stage. I said, “Welcome. I will sit here and you play.”

They said, “What?” I didn’t even conduct. I listened because I want to hear, to open the fridge. “Break.” “What?” Yes, break. They couldn’t believe it. Germans don’t get breaks. They work and work. Their instructor said, “They love you.”

Then I came back and told a story. I told them it was beautiful. The music we Argentinians play actually came from Germany.

The Germans brought the bandoneon to Argentina. It was an organ de casa (house organ). It was meant to play church music at home. During the 19th century depressions in Europe, Germans went to Argentina. Italians went. Spanish went. Russians went. Everybody brought their instruments. So the German students began to feel they are a part of this because of their ancestors.

Because of that we can make this music together. But we have to do some things a little differently because this music is poor people’s music. It’s not rich people’s music.

It comes from the harbor, from people without any money. They left Europe to find their future in Argentina. So this music doesn’t have to sound so clean. It has to be a little bit dirty.

Forget what you know. I need your animal. Come with your smell. Then suddenly these beautiful young Germans played as if transformed.

So when I work with the American orchestra, I have the feeling it’s going to be the same process.

The sound here is very beautiful. But we don’t need that. We need something else. I will ask the Americans for their animal. I need a tough sound. Come to the concert and you will hear that.

These young people will learn to play dirty from me, to play aggressive. We will kick ass.

The Heart of Tango Credo

XIMENA: What is special about Tango Credo, the world premiere we will hear on Sunday at Lincoln Center?

ZAKS: I like Martin very much. We met at a cafe in Buenos Aires. He told me his ancestors were from Denmark. So he asked if I could do the Scandinavian premiere of Misa Tango. I understand him, and I like the music.

Martin has a mission to compose church music in Tango style. That is new. He did Misa Tango. Then he wrote La Magnifica. Now he wrote Tango Credo. He wrote Tango Gloria. He also writes other kinds of music.

He does it because he cannot stop doing it. He was a choral composer who was doing some arrangements of choral music in Tango style. He thought maybe he could write a bigger piece of music. You should ask him about it.

Martin combines the text with the music and language of Tango in a meaningful way. It’s like what Ariel Ramirez did with Misa Criolla, a Mass set to the folkloric music of Latin America.

It’s a standard Latin text, a text that everybody, even Stravinsky, wrote for. The text is the central pillar.

XIMENA: Does the sacred text provoke something inside of you?

ZAKS: Yes. It comes with tradition. That’s the reason I became curious about this music.

Today at the rehearsal was the first time I heard the piece. Of course I played it myself before, but it’s not the same as hearing Palmieri and Binelli, the bandoneonist together. In their hands the score comes alive.

When we did Misa Tango in Vienna. Everybody sang the music in their own countries. But when they came to me, they got something different.

That piece starts with a text called “Kyrie eleison.” When they first sang it “Yrie.” I said, “Thank you.” Then I told them what the text means. In Spanish that means God has mercy on us. It starts with a “K.” You have to come a little bit late with that sound. “–K.” That physicality gives it meaning. Imagine 300 singers and a young orchestra, silence and 1,800 people at the concert house in Vienna. Then “–Kyrie.” The crowd sighs.

The text creates the meaning.

The Immigrant Experience

XIMENA: How is the immigrant experience part of this piece?

ZAKS: It comes out in the musical language. There is a mix of elements in the Tango, a happiness that is not happiness. It’s like the Flamenco. We suffer, but we enjoy life more when we suffer. It’s a kind of Jewish thing, very Polish, very Argentinian.

Oh, I’m suffering so. In the Tango there is a kind of sadness and melancholy that is Italian or Sicilian. The immigrant experience is heavy, old-fashioned and over-dramatized. It’s a kind of exaggerated mannerism that is almost Baroque.

Baroque and Tango are related. Why does Piazzolla write, “Pum Pum-Pum Pum-Pum?” Now you have to listen to my record so you can understand. (Zaks puts on his recording of Piazzolla’s Fuga y Misterio.)

The bandoneon plays. Now comes the guitar. The bandoneon carries on while the guitar plays the first theme. It’s going to happen again. Here the flute plays the first melody. It’s like a cake that is getting more and more layers. We started with one line. Now we have three lines. But they continue playing. Now the piano plays the same melody.

This kind of composition is a Fuga (Fugue). The instruments are running away from each other. That’s the compositional idea. Why did I explain this? Because that technique of making music comes from the Baroque, from Bach.

Baroque is like tea with sugar, stevia, and honey. When you hear this music it’s heavy. So now comes the second part of the piece. It’s another story. Contrast. The first part was strict. The second part is free with rubato. It makes a variation on the theme. We are in the same piece. We started with a strict Fugue. Then we got something free, then even more free. Now he is saying goodbye. Can you hear it?

Immigrants brought the bandoneon, their experience, and their feelings into this music.

The Ends of the World Connect

XIMENA: Why do you choose to live in Denmark?

ZAKS: I like that, in Denmark I can be left alone. I come from cultures where people can’t be left alone. In the Jewish culture, in Argentinian culture, in Israeli culture, when you don’t call your mother after two hours, something is wrong.

I like to be left alone. I have to be free to do what I do, to connect. In Denmark nobody bothers you. You can go to nature, to the sea, the forest. It is so beautiful.

The Tango is about melancholy. I learned about the melancholy of the people of the north, the Vikings, in Sweden.

I found a voice in a recording. I was mesmerized. I thought that I have to make music with that voice. I found her in Stockholm. The next day I visited her at her house there. She is an opera singer and her husband is an opera singer. She is Jewish too. We all became friends.

She told me about some poetry by a Swedish woman named Karin Boye. When I read this woman’s poetry, I discovered that she is almost the same as our Argentinian poet Alfonsina Storni. Karin Boye is up there in Sweden, the cold dark north. Alfonsina Storni is down there in the south.

So I thought of course, the Scandinavians are up there at the end of the world. We Argentinians are down there at the end of the world. There must be a connection.

Feel Maestro Zaks’ Embrace

Maestro Zaks conducts the world premiere of Martin Palmieri’s Tango Credo with bandoneonist Daniel Binelli and over 200 singers in Viva la Musica Argentina at David Geffen Hall at Lincoln Center, Sunday, April 30, 2017 at 7pm.

Tickets from $20
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  1. Box office at 10 Lincoln Center Plaza
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The cover photo, courtesy of Maestro Zaks, is by Jørn Sønderborg.

This article was published on April 28, 2017

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