Culture & Conversation

For Love of Tango

Victor Simon is leaning on a weathered veranda looking out over a field of clover, somewhere in the lost rural patchwork between Quebec City and Montreal. This is where the eye goes, to see as far as the eye can see. Standing here, it is hard to fathom construction workers webbed in scaffolding putting the finishing touches on a decades-long dream, two hundred kilometres west; hard to imagine a hemisphere away couples weaving in and out of each other’s footsteps on dusty dance floors as bandoneons compete to out-melancholy each other.

“I came to the city first, to Montreal,” Simon says, and spending time composing at his lady-love’s ancestral farmhouse has reaffirmed that “tango has to be urban.” The iconic music of the Rio de la Plata needs a madding crowd, or bust.

Simon’s September 26 concert with the McGill Chamber Orchestra, “Tango Night: Una noche en Buenos Aires,” brings the music of the Argentine capital to the Ville-Marie. A classically trained pianist from a family of musicians and poets, Simon’s tango career only began in earnest when he came to Montreal, which boasts an important tango community – milongas every night, dozens of dance schools, regular summer events and festivals, and several musical ensembles. Here, tango presented Simon with professional opportunities and with a chance to find his place among expatriates and Argentinophiles.

When I see him next, Simon in back in his urban element, a dark-coated and bushy-curled firecracker striding out of the Chapelle historique du Bon-Pasteur, folding easily into his city. He has been sequestering himself in the Sherbrooke street chapel, where a nine-foot Fazioli most resembles the Steinway that awaits him. For Simon, this concert, among the first in the new Place-des-Arts hall, will be an induction, a recognition of his 14 years of work since arriving in Canada.

For Boris Brott, Artistic Director of the McGill Chamber Orchestra – a professional ensemble with long sundry ties to the university – stepping onto the podium at the Maison symphonique will be somewhat more familiar.

The hall, Maestro Brott notes, “is still in the process of being discovered, by everyone.” Yet Brott has twice before worked with Artec, who designed the Montreal hall, and, in a sense, “we have already been in rehearsal, without even playing a note,” Brott explains. A modern hall can be tuned, and, for the chamber tango concert, the seating will be reduced, the ceilings lowered, and the musicians seated at floor level. Already, Brott has been meeting with the hall’s administrators, anticipating the best way to convey the intimacy of tango while creating space for the orchestra and pianist.

Simon, meanwhile, has his eyes on the keys. The ink is barely dry on his arrangements, and, a few days from the concert, he is shifting gears between his own performance and the more promethean task of sparking and styling the musicians’ passion. Two of the ensemble members have played with him before, and Simon has no qualms about the musicianship of this internationally recognized orchestra. “Classical musicians love playing tango,” he says. “It is fun, relaxed. They love its elegance, its sentimental side.”

Bedroom eyes to which Brott fell prey when he programmed Astor Piazzolla’s Four Seasons some years ago. “I fell in love. Tango is sincere, infectious.”

Piazzolla is on the program for Una noche en Buenos Aires, as well as classic tunes, and several pieces by Simon himself. An inveterate improviser, Simon emits a mysterious, mischievous smile when I ask him how far he will push the boundaries of the genre next Monday. Then his face becomes serious, his eyes latch on to something I can’t see – his santiageña mountains, perhaps; perhaps the fawn-coloured curves of the new concert hall. He is among the rolling fields of the St. Lawrence valley, or in the roiling midweek crowd; somewhere in between.

Tango Night: Una noche en Buenos Aires
McGill Chamber Orchestra, with Victor Simon, piano
Maison symphonique de Montréal, 1600 St. Urbain, September 26, 7:30 pm

Regular and student tickets are available, between $25 and $46, through the Place des Arts: 514-842-2112 /

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