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I Was Made for QuinTango [Washington Woman magazine]

by Hope Katz Gibbs
Washington Woman magazine
October 2002

As the grand chandelier in the East Room of the White House slowly dimmed on Monday evening, January 11, 1999, the five musicians of the Northern Virginia ensemble QuinTango sat nervously awaiting their cue.

Each artist took a deep breath as an announcer on center stage welcomed the visiting President of Argentina, Carlos Menem, and his hosts, President and Mrs. Clinton, to a state dinner entitled, “An American Celebration of Tango.”

“The musicians and dancers from the tour two great countries capture the fervor and joy of this elegant and passionate art,” the baritone announcer told the audience, which included Madeleine Albright and dozens of prominent politicians and dignitaries. Also attending were actor Robert Duvall and partner, Luciana Pedraza, who performed a tango for the guests later. “Now, ladies and gentlemen, we welcome QuinTango.”

With that, a bright light focused on the musicians, clad in black, wearing glittering jewels. They lifted their instruments and, for the next 45 minutes, played to several ovations.

That light has continued to shine on the group founded in the winter of 1996 by Joan Singer of Alexandria, VA. QuinTango has also performed at the Kennedy Center, the organization of American States, and the International Music Festival of Costa Rica.

The group has released three CDs, and the latest is due out before Christmas, on sale via the group’s website, www.quintango.com, Olsson’s Books, Politics and Prose, CDNOW, and Amazon.com

But Singer never planned to start a tango group. The classically trained violinist, who received her master’s degree from DePauw University in Indiana, made her debut with the Richmond Symphony. She later became a member of the Baltimore Opera Orchestra and Capital Chamber Ensemble. Singer has shared the stage with many music icons, including Leonard Bernstein, Victor Borge, Natalie Cole and Johnny Mathis.

One day in 1995, at Olsson’s bookstore in Alexandria’s old Town looking for a house gift for a friend who loved tango, Singer found a new passion.

“I bought about a half dozen tango CDs that looked interesting, and when I got home, I couldn’t resist opening one,” says Singer. “I loved it. So I opened another. By the end of the afternoon, I had listened to them all and was completely seduced by tango.”

Singer was so captivated that before embarking on a tour of Europe with the Capital Chamber Ensemble, she suggested she and the other musicians learn to playa tango piece. They did, and it turned out to be a huge hit with audiences. Singer knew she was on to something.

Back in the U.S., she suggested to four of her favorite classically trained musician friends, a violinist, a cellist, a bassist and a pianist that they learn to play tango music for local audiences.

“They all thought it was a great idea,” Singer recalls. Already on board were fellow Capital Chamber Ensemble members Libby Blatt, a double bassist, who has performed professionally nationally and abroad; and Bruce Steeg, a graduate of the Juilliard School of Music, who has played with the National Symphony, the New York Philharmonic, and the Cleveland Orchestra.

Singer then tapped violinist Rachel Schenker, who has degrees in music performance from Yale and Indiana University and is a member of the Harrisburg Symphony and the National Gallery Orchestra. And, she called on Irma Field Cripe, a cellist and native of Costa Rica.

Irma received her master’s degree from Wichita State University, where she was a Fulbright Scholar, and has performed with the Annapolis Chorale and the Alexandria Symphony.

With the group in place, practicing at every opportunity, the next step was to book the first gig. It didn’t take long before QuinTango found a venue, Bruce’s church, the Unity of Fairfax in Oakton, where he had organized a concert series already.

Several days before the performance, though, Singer got cold feet.

“I just wasn’t sure how an American audience in Virginia would respond to tango,” she says. “To add to my angst, just as we were about to go on, a woman walked in and announced that she was from Argentina and had come to see how Americans play the music of her country. Well, I figured this was possibly the worst thing that could happen. But what could we do but hope for the best, and start playing?”

By the end of the first number the audience was on its feet—and it stayed there for much of the performance. After the finale, the Argentinean woman motioned that she’d like to make another announcement.

“She said she thought only musicians born in Argentina could play tango-until tonight,” Singer remembers with a grin. “We all breathed a huge sigh.”

That sense of relief was bolstered when dozens of audience members approached Singer with requests to buy QuinTango’s CD. Unfortunately, she didn’t have one.

Within weeks, however, she and Bruce collected enough money to produce the group’s first recording, released in the fall of 1998. Ultimately, that CD was the catalyst for the ensemble’s invitation to perform at a White House dinner.

“Melinda Bates, a tango lover who headed the White House, was working on the dinner for the President of Argentina,” Singer explains. “She loved our group and asked me if I could lend her a tape. Fortunately, we had just come out with the CD, so I rushed over to her, arriving minutes before the committee convened to decide on the entertainment. Melinda played the CD, and everyone loved it. The result was we were asked to be part of a fairy-tale evening of tango magic at the White House. It was a memorable event, and a great honor.”

Today, Singer wants to share her passion for tango music by performing locally, nationally, and abroad. Last April, QuinTango spent a week Normandy, France, giving five concerts. In June of this year, the group spent a week performing its children’s concert at Wolf Trap’s Theater in the Woods.

Exposing and educating adults and children the world over to the beauty of tango music is QuinTango’s mission. In the spring of 2002, the group’s members were involved in the Washington Performing Arts Society’s Silk Road Education Project, taking tango into the D.C. Public Schools.

And that, Singer says, is what tango is all about. “We play this music to have fun and spread joy. Life doesn’t get much better than that.”


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"I get by with a little help from my friends," says Hope, who gives special thanks to:

• MICHAEL GIBBS, website illustration and design: www.michaelgibbs.com
• MAX KUKOY, website development: www.maxwebworks.com
• STEVE BARRETT, portrait of Hope on Bio page: www.stevebarrettphotography.com

Contact HOPE KATZ GIBBS by phone [703-346-6975] or email.