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Medieval Magic

New York
Zandel Hall, Carnegie Hall
02/04/2013 -  
Making Music
Osvaldo Golijov: K’vakarat – Qohelet – Ayre

Jessica Rivera (Soprano), Biella da Costa (Mezzo Soprano), Todd Palmer (Clarinet and Bass Clarinet)
St. Lawrence String Quartet: Geoff Nutalll, Scott St. John (Violins), Lesley Robertson (Viola), Christopher Constanza (Cello); The Zankel Band: Alex Sopp (Flute and Alto Flute), Eric Ruske (French Horn), Hsin Yun Huang (Viola), Jules MacLaine (Cello), Kris Saebo (Bass), Bridge Kibbey (Harp), Michael Ward Bergeman (Accordion), Cladio Ragazzi (Guitar and Ronruco), James Haddad (Percussion), Jeremy Flower (Sampler)
Jeremy Geffen (Moderator), Osvaldo Golijov (Commentary)

O. Golijov (© Festival de Saint-Denis/Sébastien Chambert )

During the fascinating interview with Osvaldo Golijov last night, Moderator Jeremy Geffen aptly spoke of the resemblance between the composer’s work Ayre and the multi-cultural Divan Orchestra, conducted last week by Daniel Barenboim. But perhaps an even more cogent resemblance could be made between Mr. Golijov and Sofia Gubaidulina.

He, born in Argentina to a Central European family, Jewish, a fervent student of Sephardic, Arabic and early Christian history, an innovator showing the similarities and progressions of music through Arabic, Berber and Jewish music from Spain through the Middle East. She born in a Tartar republic, with a heritage of Jewish, Russian Orthodox and Tartar forebears, stimulated by rare instruments and music from Russia, Asia and the Caucasus.

Ms. Gubaidulina also has a foundation of firm religious belief and the musical work of J. S. Bach. I don’t know Mr. Golijov’s inner beliefs. But both composers are obviously humanists, obviously believers in the linkage of all musics. (As well as having the longest combined names without a single “e”.)

Both composers are highly popular in New York. Ms. Gubaidulina will have an entire concert in her honor at Miller Theater this Saturday. And last night, Mr. Golijov was given his own program at Zankel Hail, including a New York premiere. That was Qohelet, played by the St. Lawrence String Quartet, and it seemed to be a work in progress. Mr. Golijov had said in the interview that he has less trouble writing “dramatic” music than “abstract” music, and this two-movement piece was firmly in the latter camp.

The opening movement was a rather amorphous piece of ripples and metallic sounds, canons and echoes which ran into and apart from each other. The second movement, without a pause was far more attractive, basically a beautifully fluid violin solo by Geoff Nutalll, with an almost Schubertian lyricism.

The St. Lawrence String Quartet started with one movement from a work originally written for the Kronos, The Dreams and Prayers of Isaac the Blind, with clarinet solo virtually imitating the chants of the Orthodox Jewish cantor. Todd Palmer was the soloist, playing with appropriate shrill sounds on his B-flat, and moaning music from the bass clarinet.

There was no doubt whatsoever that the second half, modestly titled Ayre, was–and always will be–one of the most exciting works of the 21st Century. I had heard the premiere with Dawn Upshaw mastering both soprano and mezzo-soprano parts. Alas (or thank goodness), there is only one Dawn Upshaw, who could growl through the opening, sing with utmost tenderness the lullabies, and go through all the Arabic, Ladino and Aramaic languages and music effortlessly.

(It also says something of Mr. Golijov’s esoteric knowledge that he had translated virtually all the poetry itself for the program notes.)

J. Rivera (© Isabel Pinto)

Last night, Mr. Golijov had divided the work for two singers, both of whom were so dramatically right for this most theatrical music that one sat back mesmerized. Jessica Rivera was the soprano who sung what I think is one of the most beautiful songs ever composed, Una Madre Comió Assado (translated as “A mother roast and ate her child”) with ironic tenderness.

B. Da Costa (© PatriaGrande.com)

Biella da Costa I know better as a jazz singer–and in fact will be premiering Mr. Golijov’s Oceana at Carnegie Hall on February 27. Here, she growled and roared and tossed her scarf around in the most riproaring songs of Spain and parts unknown to the modern world.

But this is an ensemble piece above all. At its original performance here, the huge stage gave room for all the players to dance and sing and gallivant around, most or less with aleatory skill. Here, the physical movements were more sedate. But oh, what music they produced. Most of the verses came from the Spanish Golden Age of Catholic, Sephardic and Berber living in (musical) harmony. Mr. Golijov produced a work of insane musical harmonies (klezmer clarinet and horn together, an acoustic accordion with glissandi tones, splendid percussion, a beautiful guitar solo, harp melodies–that, for one going to a first performance, it must be almost uncomfortably unusual.

That, at least, had been my first experience. Now having attended one showing, and listening to the recording (the latter not at all satisfactory), I still felt a bit disoriented. Then, again, for the Medieval Orient, for a work anything but quiet, disorientation and disquietness is exactly what a good composer should aim for, and Mr. Golijov hit both challenges with ineluctable direction.

Harry Rolnick



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