Tag Archives: tango


Anna Maria Mendieta

Classical Harpist Treads New Paths Playing Tango

Anna Maria Mendieta has no trouble recalling the dayspring of her lifelong love affair with the harp. At age five, her arts-loving parents (her mother was a pianist and accordionist; her father played classical guitar and saxophone) played a recording of Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet, and the overture swept her away.


“They told me the story of Romeo and Juliet and I remember being so amazed because you can really hear it in that music, and there’s this moment where everything becomes silent and all you hear is this beautiful harp. And that’s when I knew: That’s what I want to play,” she says. “I sat there with my ear right up to the speaker and I had them play the recording for me over and over again.”

Unlike Shakespeare’s infamous star-crossed lovers, Mendieta’s love was requited not too much later. Her parents started her on the piano while they figured out the logistics of harp studies and found her a teacher. “My father was a great collector of instruments. He had all sorts of things, even a harpsichord! But no harp,” she says. By age seven, she had begun studying the Salzedo method with Israeli harpist Efrat Laury-Zaklad at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. “I took my first lesson and I knew; clearly, there was never any wavering from that.”

The towering physicality and visual beauty of the harp—and the highly-aesthetic Salzedo method in particular—have always been part of the appeal for Mendieta. The visual sleight-of-hand that keeps the audience’s eyes on the graceful gestures of the arm and away from the foot pedaling action that determines the harp’s key is a dance in itself. (“Now you know the secret to the long gown,” she slyly whispers.) For her, the connection with dancing offers a certain familiar comfort: alongside their musical studies, Mendieta’s parents encouraged their children to study dance. The family’s Spanish heritage made flamenco an important point of cultural connection (one of her sisters is a professional flamenco dancer), but it was after Mendieta’s career as a professional harpist was well-established that she found a new love: the tango.

Like so many people, Mendieta found the tango through the compositions and performances of revolutionary Argentinian composer and virtuoso bandoneon player Astor Piazzolla, whose nuevo tango style changed the face of both classical music and tango. Falling in love with the music and its accompanying dance, Mendieta sought out harp arrangements of Piazzolla’s work. Finding none, she wrote directly to Pablo Ziegler, Piazzolla’s former pianist and the preeminent composer and performer of nuevo tango, to see if he had anything that might work. No luck. “I said, ‘Just send me what you have and I’ll figure out how to play it,’” she says.

“People told me it wouldn’t work, there was just no way. ‘You can’t play tango music on a harp, it’s too chromatic,’ they said. And it was a real challenge,” Mendieta recalls. “Astor Piazzolla’s music is so incredible. He uses his instruments not only as melodic instruments but as rhythm instruments. It took me many, many years to figure out how to do that on the harp. I had to change my technique in order to get the sounds. To play the chromatics, I figured out different ways to bend the notes.”

Mendieta realized that the methods used by jazz harpists to use the pedals of the harp strategically to create slides and slurs could provide a basis for this new technique. This, of course, went against everything she had ever learned about the pedals: be as gentle and quiet as possible so as not to lose the clarity of notes; move feet with subtlety so as not to distract from the hands. Suddenly, she found herself using the pedals like a pedal steel guitar player would: bending her notes in real time while also getting creative with enharmonics, using them to substitute for chromatics when an extra note was needed without a pedal change. “I was also incorporating percussive sounds, like the chicharra sound of the violin [a method of playing the violin string above the bridge for a cricket-like percussive effect], but I had to figure out how to make all those imitative sounds. I just basically made it all up,” she says.

Mendieta’s creativity in making the tango work on the harp resonated with many of Piazzolla’s former orchestra-mates and contemporaries, who found echoes of Piazzolla’s own rule-breaking in this new tango frontier. Mendieta has played with a number of these musicians and has spent significant amounts of time in Argentina both studying and teaching, alongside names like Pablo Ziegler, Javier Cohen, and Daniel Binelli.

A surprising moment in Mendieta’s touring concert and show, “Tango del Cielo,” comes when the male principal dancer walks over to the harp and takes her hand, leading her to the dance floor. “Oh, the audience loves that, they really don’t expect it,” she laughs. Learning to dance the tango was, for Mendieta, crucial to understanding the deep feeling and rhythms of the music.

Even as she treads new paths in the tango field, Mendieta has not abandoned the music that made her fall in love with the harp in the first place, as the harpist for the Sacramento Philharmonic and Opera and a fixture throughout the California classical scene. Her work with the Sac Phil, along with regular performances in San Francisco and Los Angeles, has made her a rare AFM triple-carder: Local 12 (Sacramento, CA), Local 47 (Los Angeles, CA), and her original Local 6 in San Francisco, with whom she first signed on as a teenager.

Union membership has not only afforded Mendieta performance opportunities, networking, a safety net, and the knowledge that there were people who had her back, but also a wealth of opportunities to develop personally as both a performer and a business professional through the extensive continuing education programs on offer. “Local 47 in particular has that great new building and they offer so many interesting workshops—all kinds of things, from technology training to tax information, as well as every kind of music you can imagine.”

With COVID threatening the livelihoods of so many artists (and the venues in which they play), Mendieta sees the AFM as crucial in helping musicians stay connected, sharing ideas and inspiration and outside-the-box thinking, and lobbying for survival.

Personally, Mendieta spent the shutdown finishing the Tango del Cielo album that she’s had on the back burner for years. It was partially completed but never quite finished due to near-constant performances and teaching.

“I just had not found the time to finish it,” she says. “So early on, when it seemed like things might be closing for a week, maybe two, I decided to take the opportunity to go into the studio and finally finish recording my parts, and I’m so glad I did because mixing them—which I did digitally with my producer—gave me something to do in those early weeks, and I did finally get the whole thing finished and released!”


  • Lyon & Healy harp (Salzedo Model)
  • Horngacher harp
  • Premier harp strings (“I like the clarity of their strings.”)
  • Portastand Minstrel music stand (“It’s so lightweight, it’s solid and sturdy, plus it’s small so it doesn’t block the sightlines of the harp during performances.”)

From Jazz to Tango, Violinist Jeremy Cohen Plays Fearlessly

In tango music, there’s an important concept called “la mugre,” literally, “dirt” or “grime,” but referring to a figurative scintilla of grit—a bit of rawness and emotion in both the music itself and the dancing. If your tango isn’t tinged with adequate mugre, explains violinist Jeremy Cohen of Local 6 (San Francisco, CA), it will lack the depth for which the genre is known.

Coming to tango a bit later in his musical life, adding it to his well-established repertoire of both classical and jazz music, Cohen found that the concept of mugre resonated well with him, giving a word to a feeling he’d had for quite some time—that a rigid culture of perfection tends to sanitize music itself. “The mugre is what gives the music its soul; that’s the good stuff,” he says. “You can’t fool anybody if you’re not coming from a place of real joy, and that means being able to play freely and without fear.”

That’s not, he is quick to clarify, to say that technique isn’t important. Having studied classical violin under legendary performer-pedagogues Itzhak Perlman and Anne Crowder, he puts strong value on knowing his way around a fiddle and a bow, but his circuitous route to serious studies included an extended stint in his grade school jazz band after a false start in the orchestra. “I was sitting with my legs crossed, so they sent me to the back. I didn’t like that, so I quit and joined the band instead,” he says. This was a minor infraction but one which stuck in the craw of the young Cohen, who found himself with a two-track career from the very beginning: studying classical music at Sonoma State in California with utmost seriousness while also playing casual swing gigs on the Russian River.

As his career developed, taking him the long way around from New York to Los Angeles via the road company of The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, he eventually found his way back home to Northern California. Settling down in San Francisco, he pulled the parallel tracks closer together, performing with a number of prominent and diverse ensembles. Eventually, he formed his own Quartet San Francisco, an eclectic string quartet that explores the possibilities of string-forward contemporary music. Quartet San Francisco has won tango competitions, performed the music of everyone from Dave Brubeck to Michael Jackson, and snagged a handful of Grammy nominations in its nearly 20 years of existence. The quartet’s lack of self-imposed boundaries allows Cohen the freedom to explore genres and composers broadly, but also to take a deep dive into a single sub-genre or even an artist’s repertoire. “Really, we’re just expanding the roles of the modern string player; putting the strings front and center,” he says.

Cohen also heads up Violinjazz, a more straightforward does-what-it-says-on-the-tin jazz group, where he digs deep into the swing and big band violin repertoire, expanding beyond the better-known Joe Venuti and Stéphane Grappelli and into the work of Stuff Smith and Eddie South. Violinjazz is also the name of the Cohen’s publishing label, where he composes, arranges, and produces sheet music from the broader repertoire of American string music.

The freedom that comes from all of these outlets to simply play what he loves to play and create what he loves to create is a major key to Cohen’s success, he believes. He works to impart this joy and fearlessness to his own students, whom he primarily teaches via StringMasters, his custom-built online teaching platform. A few years back, Cohen found himself, like so many other teachers, frustrated trying to teach remote lessons via a patchwork of glitchy apps, juggling payment systems and video conferencing software, and emailing PDFs of sheet music. So, alongside a student who also worked as a web designer, Cohen built his own dream platform from scratch, giving him the flexibility to modify it for his own needs as a teacher, both in terms of real-time lesson capability and scheduling, payment, and other administrative necessities. Teachers can pop pieces of sheet music onto the screen from a massive library and mark it up in real time onscreen. Students can re-watch their recorded lessons at their leisure. Both can maintain an easy-to-manipulate personal library of sheet music and recordings. “It’s designed for serious musicians who want a higher lesson quality and the ease of just one platform,” Cohen says.

Though the StringMasters platform (www.StringMasters.com) predates COVID by a few years, it did come in awfully handy when Cohen, who also serves as the artistic director of string, and his fellow teachers all found themselves unable to teach lessons in person. Not only has the number of individual teachers using the platform skyrocketed, a number of prestigious summer programs used it this past summer as their instructional base. The dynamic system allows for constant improvement even now: Cohen is currently working to add instant video playback—the closest replica of playing duets currently possible with web capabilities.

Private instruction is what’s keeping most of Cohen’s time filled during the ongoing pandemic shutdown, but he credits the AFM with providing a career’s worth of job security leading up to this point. He rattles off his locals with the same jovial familiarity with which he rattles off old bandmates: “I was a member of 802 in New York, and then after I went to LA, I was a member of 47, and now I’m a member of [San Francisco Local] 6,” he says. He reminisces of a time when San Francisco was a die-hard union town and blue-collar and white-collar workers were ready to go to the mattresses on each others’ behalf whenever it was needed. Union-busting on a nationwide scale is a major factor, he believes, in the current political climate. “How many of these people out here have no backup?” he asks. “They just see things getting worse and worse; the destruction of the entire middle class in their lifetimes, but instead of protection, they got NAFTA.”

Even in a political climate that is hostile to organized labor, Cohen sees the way out as growth. “We not only have to survive [as a union], we have to figure out a way to come back bigger,” he says. “The path back means more than just survival; it means growing the base.” For him, though, that’s an easy sell, especially in a part of the country with a notoriously high cost of living. “Without a steady job in San Francisco, like with the symphony or the ballet or the opera, making a living—especially raising a family—without the auspices of union work is not possible.”

Jeremy Cohen’s Violin Has a Life of Its Own

Jeremy Cohen plays a violin that sings out a tango as comfortably as it squeaks out a mouse’s revenge.

Originally made in 1868 by Jean-Baptiste Vuillaume, the premier French luthier, the violin spent half a century in the capable hands of Lou Raderman. Raderman has one of the most extensive discographies in American popular music and played with everyone from Ella Fitzgerald to Frank Sinatra. As concertmaster of the MGM Orchestra from 1939 to 1969, Raderman and his violin can be heard in every MGM movie soundtrack for a third of a century, from The Wizard of Oz to Singin’ in the Rain, to Ben Hur, Doctor Zhivago, and hundreds more.

“Every time I’m watching an old movie or listening to a record and I hear it, I know it right away—that’s my fiddle!” enthuses Cohen.

MGM also made the iconic Tom and Jerry cartoon, where this violin played a crucial (and cheeky) role, which Cohen loves to gleefully demonstrate: a resonating twang, the unmistakable sound of a plucked whisker.

Cohen purchased the iconic violin from Lou Raderman’s widow, Sally (who was also a violinist with the MGM orchestra).

Tango Del Cielo

Anna Maria Mendieta

Harpist Anna Maria Mendieta’s newest album, Tango Del Cielo, is a collection of Argentine tango and Spanish classical music. The album includes arrangements for harp and orchestra featuring works by Astor Piazzolla, Pablo Ziegler, and more. These orchestrations have been created by award-winning composers, including Jorge Calandrelli; pianist for Piazzolla, Pablo Ziegler; and Jeremy Cohen. The album was recorded at Skywalker Sound with Grammy Award-winning engineer Leslie Ann Jones.

Tango Del Cielo (Tango of Heaven) brings Mendieta’s technical prowess to the forefront. The album synthesizes years of advocacy and partnership between Mendieta and some of Piazzolla’s closest colleagues and artistic collaborators, thus presenting a groundbreaking new vision for both tango music and the harp repertoire.

Mendieta is a member of Local 6 (San Francisco, CA), Local 12 (Sacramento, CA), and Local 47 (Los Angeles, CA).