Paragon, Katoomba, November 13

Alturas res
Alturas. Photo supplied.

Like a perfect match between food and wine, there was an idyllic partnership between the elegant tango-based music of Alturas met the equally graceful art-deco decor of the Paragon, designed by Henry White, who was also responsible for the State and Capitol Theatres in Sydney. And beyond aesthetics the bright acoustics allowed the ensemble to play acoustically, a keyboard apart.

Much of this sense of elegance was encapsulated in the violin and viola playing of Inge Courtney-Haentjes, notably on Pablo Ziegler’s Milonga Del Adios. She also best conveyed the music’s implicit romance and even the vague sense of something darker that inhabits tango at its best, so the ear was often drawn to her lines even when the primary melody was being carried elsewhere.

That “elsewhere” stretched to 12 instruments being played between the band’s five members, with bassist Stan Valacos even swapping to guitar for Merida. The Astor Piazzolla pieces in the repertoire included Milonga Sin Palabras, cleverly rearranged by Gaye Thomas (flutes, bandoneon) and Greg Gibson (saxophones, clarinets). Original compositions also popped up, with Gibson’s Betancor’s Return containing a swooning melody and a gorgeous piano solo from Jane Andino (who was giving her last performance after six years with the band). The waltz Pedacito de Cielo was as light and fluffy as a marshmallow, and being written around the time that Henry White wrought his magic, almost sounded like the walls themselves were singing.

Yet for all the innate appeal of the experience you sense that Alturas could still be a much better band. This has nothing to do with being more accomplished musicians, but with throwing caution to the wind and daring to let the music live on the edge of failure. While precision is a vital ingredient of tango, getting it right should never be entirely prioritised over loading it with passion. Courtney-Haentjes was the only member not constantly buried in the sheet music, and that may well be a clue to her performance being the strongest.