QuinTango leader Joan Singer

Who she is: Leader of the musical group QuinTango

What she does: A classically trained violinist, Joan (pictured front left with the violin) received her master’s degree from DePauw University in Indiana and made her debut with the Richmond Symphony. She later became a member of the Baltimore Opera Orchestra and Capital Chamber Ensemble. Joan has shared the stage with many music icons, including Leonard Bernstein, Victor Borge, Natalie Cole and Johnny Mathis. Pictured with her here are her fellow QuinTango members: Jennifer Rickard (center), Phil Hosford (piano), Libby Blatt (bass), Jennifer Rickard (violin), and Kerry Van Laanen(cello).

Why she does it: To bring beautiful tango music to the masses.

MADE FOR QUINTANGO

By Hope Katz Gibbs

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 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.

Burning bright

That light has continued to shine on the group founded in the winter of 1996 by Joan Singer of Alexandria, VA.

In the last 14 years, the group has performed thousands of times at such prestigious venues as the Kennedy Center, Lincoln Center, and across the U.S. — as well as twice in Buenos Aires for the U.S. Ambassador to Argentina, and the Organization of American States in 29 countries including Mexico, France, and Costa Rica.

It has also released five CDs, and been awarded WAMMIES for Best Latin Recording, Best World Music Recording, and Best Chamber Music Ensemble. QuinTango CDs and downloads are available at amazon, iTunes, and CDBbaby.

But Joan never planned to start a tango group.

The classically trained violinist, who received her master’s degree in music from DePauw University (in Indiana) and her undergraduate degree in English literature from Earlham College, a small Quaker liberal arts school in Indiana, made her debut with the Richmond Symphony. She later became a member of the Baltimore Opera Orchestra and Capital Chamber Ensemble. Joan has shared the stage with many music icons, including Leonard Bernstein, Victor Borge, Natalie Cole and Johnny Mathis.

One day in 1995, while looking for a house gift for a friend who loved tango at Olsson’s bookstore in Alexandria’s Old Town, Joan 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 Joan. “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.”

Creating musical magic

Joan was so captivated that before embarking on a tour of Europe with the Capital Chamber Ensemble, she suggested that she and the other musicians learn to play a tango piece. They did, and it turned out to be a huge hit with audiences. Furthermore, one of the European presenters had his own tango band and asked their U.S. guests to join them in a jam one rainy night in The Hague.

The impact on Joan was visible to the Dutch bandleader, who clinched the evening’s life-changing effect by showing up at the train station the next morning to give Joan enough music and tapes to keep her busy all the way to Italy.

Back in the U.S., she wanted to get a group together to read this new music. Already on board were fellow Capital Chamber Ensemble members Libby Blatt, a double bassist, whose performance history included a stint with an all-girl gypsy orchestra in New York; and Bruce Steeg, a graduate of the Juilliard School of Music, who had played with the National Symphony, the New York Philharmonic, and the Cleveland Orchestra.

Joan 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, who 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 and practicing at every opportunity, the next step was to book the first gig. It didn’t take long before QuinTango found a venue. Bruce ran a concert series at his church, the Unity of Fairfax in Oakton, and he was short one concert.

Several days before the performance, though, Joan 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 concert the audience was on its feet, cheering. Then the Argentinean woman hushed the audience and announced she had something to say. “She said she thought only musicians born in Argentina could play tango—until tonight,” Joan remembers with a grin. “We all breathed a huge sigh.”

That sense of relief was bolstered when dozens of audience members approached Joan 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.

A star-studded audience

“Melinda Bates, a tango lover who headed the White House Visitor’s Office, was working on the dinner for the President of Argentina,” Joan 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 it 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 that 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.”

Joan recently turned the group into a nonprofit organization, and now she says she can do an even better job sharing her passion for tango music by performing locally, nationally, and abroad.

“In April 2009, QuinTango spent a week in Normandy, France, giving five concerts and in June we performed a children’s concert at Wolf Trap’s Theater in the Woods in Northern VA,” she says. “Exposing and educating adults and children the world over to the beauty of tango music is QuinTango’s mission. We play this music to have fun and spread joy. Life doesn’t get much better than that.”


The Women