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December 1, 2010

Music to mark World AIDS Day from the great Cuban-born pianist Jorge Bolet

On this World AIDS Day, there's an unusual amount of optimism that important corners are being turned in the search for preventative measures, but that is small comfort compared to the appalling toll the disease has taken across the global. Members of the young generation are, thankfully, growing up without knowing the pain of losing friends and family members in rapid succession. The rest of us will carry those scars for the rest of our lives.

I will never forget the shock of hearing John Corigliano's Symphony No. 1 for the first time. In that work from 1989, subtitled "Of Rage and Remembrance," the composer found exceptionally inventive and moving ways to memorialize many of his own friends, weaving their lives literally into the score. A particularly close pianist friend inspired the most haunting reflection in the symphony. Corigliano made use of a venerable keyboard chestnut, the endearing Godowsky transcription of Albeniz's "Tango," a favorite of his friend; the piece is played off-stage in the outer movements.

If you have never heard that symphony, please check it out. We may live in a less rage-driven time when it comes to AIDS, but the symphony's way of capturing the raw emotions of the '80s has hardly lost its power. World AIDS Day got me thinking about that symphony again, but I found myself focusing specifically on that subtly sensual, wonderfully nostalgic "Tango." And, if you'll pardon the convoluted reasoning, that's the piece I'd like to offer here as a musical reflection on this solemn day.

I found a superb interpretation of the Albeniz/Godowsky "Tango" played by

Jorge Bolet, the patrician Cuban-born pianist who died 20 years ago at the age of 75. (Though never official, it was widely reported in the industry that his death was due to complications from HIV. UPDATE: See comment below that clarifies the issue.)

This performance, recorded in recital two years before he died, captures the essence of Bolet, one of my all-time favorite pianists, and the essence of this gentle "Tango." Since hearing it in the context of Corigliano's symphony, I'll always associate the piece with all the artists, from the just-budding to the most seasoned, lost to the disease over the decades.

It also has come to mean for me a way of remembering those I held dear in my own life. I hope you'll find that it does the same for you.

Posted by Tim Smith at 8:49 AM | | Comments (2)
Categories: Classical, Clef Notes, Drama Queens


A copy of Mr. Bolet's death certificate is in the Jorge Bolet Collection at the International Piano Archives-University of Maryland. Cause of death is given, simply, as AIDS. The pianist learned he was HIV positive in December 1988--a little under 2 years before his passing. Thank you for posting this.

Thanks for that confirmation. I know that everyone seemed to know at the time, but I never came across an official statement, which is why I phrased it the way I did. TIM

Thank you for your thoughtful and sensitive blog. More than once, I just stop by to see if there's any news in the classical music world. Your commentary and clips, however, stop me in my cyber-tracks and give me a pensive and reflective boost. Thank you too, for this post.

And thank you for the kinds words and for the cyber visits. I am very appreciative. TIM

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About Tim Smith
Born and raised in Washington, D.C., I couldn't help but develop a keen interest in politics, but music, theater and visual art also proved great attractions. Music became my main focus after high school. I thought about being a cocktail pianist, but I hated taking requests, so I studied music history instead, earning a B.A. in that field from Eisenhower College (Seneca Falls, N.Y.) and an M.A. from Occidental College (Los Angeles). I then landed in journalism. After freelancing for the Washington Post and others, I was classical music critic for the Sun-Sentinel in South Florida, where I also contributed to NPR. I've written for the New York Times, BBC Music Magazine and other publications, and I'm a longtime contributor to Opera News. My book, The NPR Curious Listener's Guide to Classical Music (Perigee, 2002), can be found on the most discerning remainder racks.

I joined the Baltimore Sun as classical music critic in 2000 and, in 2009, also became theater critic, giving me the opportunity to annoy a whole new audience. In 2010, my original Clef Notes blog expanded to encompass a theatrical component -- how could I resist calling it Drama Queens? I hope you'll find both sides of this blog coin worth exploring and reacting to; your own comments are always welcome and valued (well, most of them, at least).

Think of this as your open-all-hours, cyber green room, where there's always a performer or performance to discuss, some news to digest, or maybe just a little good gossip to share.
Note: Tim Smith now writes about the fine arts at This blog will be kept in place as an archive for an indefinite period. Please visit the new location to get the latest Mid-Atlantic arts coverage.
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