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Focus on Golijov

Roy Thomson Hall
02/25/2010 -  
Kelly-Marie Murphy: Through the unknown, unremembered door
Osvaldo Golijov: Three Songs for Soprano and Orchestra – Azul for Cello and orchestra (*)

Dawn Upshaw (Soprano), Alisia Weilerstein (Cello)
Toronto Symphony Orchestra, Peter Oundjian (Conductor and Host), Miguel Harth-Bedoya (*) (Conductor)

O. Golijov (© Sébastien Chambert)

The Toronto Symphony Orchestra’s annual program is dotted with new compositions (newly commissioned, new to Toronto, etc.) but for several years a portion of its season is declared to be the New Creations Festival, with a focus on (but not limited to) the works of one living composer who will ideally be in attendance. This year it is Argentinian Osvaldo Golijov.

The first of the three concerts opened with a piece by Canadian Kelly-Marie Murphy, Through the unknown, unremembered door (a line from T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets). It was commissioned for the National Youth Orchestra of Canada in 2007. It is one of those short (under 10 minutes) concert-opening pieces designed hopefully to whet one’s appetite for more work from the composer - which it succeeds in doing. It starts off quietly then builds, and includes wordless choral passages voiced by the orchestra’s players.

Ms. Murphy was present and in conversation with Peter Oundjian proved to be both informative and personable, as was the star of the evening, Osvaldo Golijov. His Three Songs for Soprano and Orchestra (first performed in its present form by the Minnesota Orchestra) is an enchanting work that deserves a place in the world repertoire, most certainly when sung by Dawn Upshaw. Her unique lyric soprano voice has colours one usually hears in the mezzo range. The first song, Night of the Flying Horses, is a lullaby sung in Yiddish. It begins with the soprano unaccompanied; the orchestra then enters, accompanies her to the end of the text, then plays a lengthy postlude with a probing quality I can only describe as Mahleresque/klezmeresque.

The second song, Lúa Descolorida (Colourless Moon), was written Rosalia de Castro in Gallego, the language of Galicia (northwest Spain). Golijov set himself the task of composing a mournful song in the “cheerful” key of C. At first I was reminded of Canteloube, but the song quickly takes the listener into its own sound world. The final song, How slow the wind, conflates two short poems by Emily Dickinson with wonderful word-setting.

Verdict: based on this and other works, the Golijov/Upshaw collaboration is sure to go down in musical history.

Leading in to Golijov’s Azul, and continuing the program’s literary emphasis, Dionne Brand, Toronto’s current Poet Laureate, read a poem inspired by the piece.

Azul was written in 2006 and premiered at Tanglewood with Yo Yo Ma. Golijov subsequently reworked it with the collaboration of Alisa Weilerstein (“She owns it” he stated in his introduction).

And for this final piece, the baton was handed over to the Peru-born, Texas-based conductor Miguel Harth-Bedoya. Like many Golijov works, it is a hybrid, with some performers amplified, namely the cellist, the two guest percussionists (Jamey Haddad and Keita Ogawa) and the accordionist (Michael Ward-Bergeman). These four performers are seated in front of the orchestra, giving the work the appearance of a sinfonia concertante. It is in four linked but very distinct movements: “Paz Sulfúrica”, “Silencio”, “Transit”, and “Yrushalem”.

The work is varied and atmospheric, with occasional hints of menace. The composer’s notes refer to “unearned bliss”, perhaps a clue to the works evanescent quality. One could hear it several times and grasp it (or not quite grasp it) a different way each time.

Azul is a great work, but I question the need for the amplification. At least the amplified players are not grossly over-amplified; microphones are placed in front of their instruments and the sound emanates from banks of speakers on each side of the platform. However, if your seat is slightly off-centre (as mine was) the soloist’s sound comes at you from one side. The percussion and accordion (the instrument is actually called a hyper-accordion) are used for the most part very discreetly and perhaps this is the reason for the amplification. Ms. Weilerstein’s cello certainly doesn’t seem to be in need of it.

The capacity audience received the concert with great enthusiasm.

Michael Johnson



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