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  • Writer's pictureJim Bessman

Anna Maria Mendieta brings tango to harp music

Anna Maria Mendieta

Anna Maria Mendieta at APAP

Award-winning concert harpist Anna Maria Mendieta is bringing tango to the harp music canon.

The San Francisco-based principle harpist with the Sacramento Philharmonic & Opera, just back from an intense schedule in Boise with Opera Idaho, was at the recent Association of Performing Arts Professionals (APAP) conference at New York’s Hilton Hotel Midtown, where she promoted her show Tango Del Cielo (Tango of Heaven), which features tango and flamenco music and dance.

And in celebration of the new decade, the show also features a special tribute to “the Roaring 1920s and the Silent Films.”

“We have lots of fun turning the clock back to the Golden Age of Hollywood, since it was through the silent films that tango was first popularized in the United States,” says Mendieta, who has performed in pop programs with the likes of Andrea Bocelli, Josh Groban, Johnny Mathis, the Moody Blues, Frank Sinatra Jr. and Barry Manilow.

She cites specifically the movies of Rudolph Valentino among other great silent film stars.

Rudolph Valentino

Rudolph Valentino and Nita Naldi in "Blood and Sand"

“My Great Aunt Nita Naldi was Rudolph Valentino’s co-star for so many movies that she was known as the ‘Female Valentino’! She is seen in many movies with him, but one in particular is quite fascinating: In [the famous film in which he played a matador] Blood and Sand, she is seen playing the harp for Rudolph, which was how she stole his character’s heart away from the bullfights, his career as a matador, his fans--and his wife. The funny thing is that I never knew she played the harp! When growing up, my grandmother would always talk about my relative Nita Naldi in the silent movies. But I was too young to appreciate it, and never knew she was Valentino’s co-star until a few years ago when I was doing a different version of the show and wanted to feature old tango scenes from the silent films.”

The current Tango Del Cielo is a multimedia concert with harp, strings and percussion, showcasing the tango, flamenco, classical and jazz music and dance of Latin America and Spain—also with film art, lighting effects, backdrops, sets, props, and vignettes, and also featuring award-winning Argentine tango and Flamenco dancers.

“Many of the famous tangos we know today were composed for movies like The Mark of Zorro, with Douglas Fairbanks & Lupe Valez, and the films of Valentino and Nita,” notes Mendieta. “Tango Del Cielo connects history with the present, tradition with innovation. It’s entertaining, educational, and appropriate for all ages.”

Mendieta has long specialized in Spanish music for the harp. Her ancestry is from Spain and Mexico, and she’s performed for the king and queen of Spain in California at the best of the Spanish Consulate, as well as at National Hispanic Week festivities in Washington, D.C.

But she credits the late Argentine tango composer/bandoneon player legend Astor Piazzolla for her deep and pioneering dive into tango back in 2004.

“I fell in love with his music and started looking for arrangements--and couldn’t find any!” says Mendieta, who was told that she couldn’t play tango on the harp anyway, as it was musically “too chromatic.”

“So I had to create my own arrangements, and now a lot of harpists play tango music.

She even met some of Piazzolla’s musicians, who created other arrangements and composed new music for her.

“His music unites everything—tango and Latin rhythm with contemporary classical and jazz elements,” she says of Piazzolla. “The harp was always considered a dainty teatime instrument, but it’s so much more: It’s not just melodic, but also a percussive instrument—and being a classically-trained musician, playing tango was very freeing.”

Mendieta did have to adapt her technique to playing it, though.

“I had to achieve a ‘power bass’ sound, and ended up with bruises up and down my arm! At first it was very, very hard, but I soon figured out a shortcut and was able to do it.”

Mendieta has released an EP, Del Cielo!, featuring the music of Argentina and Spain with harp and orchestra, in advance of a full album, due later this year. It will be the first album of Argentine tango music for harp and orchestra.

“It was recorded at Skywalker Sound, and has compositions and arrangements by some of Piazzolla’s musicians,” she says, citing his Grammy-winning regular pianist Pablo Ziegler, also Jorge Calandrelli: “He’s won six Grammys and looked up to Piazzolla as a mentor! He arranged our version of Piazzolla’s ‘Oblivion.’”

"Tango Del Cielo" show reel



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