The death of Piazzolla
Osvaldo Golijov: Last Round
Osvaldo Golijov: Tekya
Osvaldo Golijov: Ainadamar Arias and Ensembles
Osvaldo Golijov: Ayre
Dawn Upshaw (soprano), Jessica Rivera (soprano), Kelley O'Connor (mezzo-soprano), David Kracauer (clarinet)
Roberto Minczuk (conductor)
BBC Symphony Orchestra, The Andalucian Dogs
Osvaldo Golijov ticks some boxes for multiculturalism: born in the melting pot of Argentina, he emigrated to Israel during the anti-Jewish violence of the Videla regime, and he now teaches in the other melting pot, the United States. Like many, he was excited by the music of Astor Piazzolla, itself a fusion in the tango of European immigrants' instrumental techniques and European high art, including expressive counterpoint that at times rivals Bach's. Golijov studied with George Crumb and Oliver Knussen, but he works strongly within the popular traditions he grew up with, as Nadia Boulanger persuaded Piazzolla to do. Golijov adds Jewish and Peninsular Spanish musical traditions and many other Latin American dance forms to the complex tango, and he has worked with the Kronos quartet, all of which suggests "world music" with all its uplift and exoticism. Golijov's major work so far, though, is La pasión según San Marcos (at the Barbican on 24 February), one of the four passions commissioned for the Millennium, clearly a substantial composition.
This programme, a showcase for Ayre adapted fairly late to include extracts from Golijov's opera Ainadamar (recently staged at Santa Fe), didn't quite provide enough evidence to decide whether he is serious, popular, or both, but it was intense and exhilarating throughout. The first two pieces were instrumental and comparatively formal: the two part structure of Last Round evoked Piazzolla's struggle for life after his stroke in 1992, conceived as a free-form fist fight, followed by a slow, passacaglia-like meditation, like a long sigh, on Carlos Gardel's sentimental tango favourite Mi Buenos Aires querido; Tekya, composed for a BBC film about Auschwitz, is a brief, fanfare-like ritual for twelve wind players, all of whom play shofars at the end. There were some rough edges, particularly at the start of Last Round, that might have reflected the BBCSO's discomfort with getting down and dirty, which the Klezmer clarinettist David Kracauer did in style, or perhaps just a lack of rehearsal. In their different ways, though, both pieces had a visceral impact.
There was a lot more obvious artifice and sentiment in the rest of the programme, which was effectively two song cycles. The arias and ensembles extracted from Golijov's small-scale opera Ainadamar, with a libretto by David Henry Hwang, evoked the drama of the death of the poet Lorca, as remembered late in life by his friend and muse Margarita Xirgu. Xirgu was the original protagonist of his play Mariana Pineda, and assumed the role until her death in the 1960s. In the opera she is thus both a modern, engaged observer and, a symbol of progressive resistance through her impersonation of Mariana, who was a historical heroine, executed in 1831, of the resistance to Ferdinand VII and also something of a Spanish Marianne figure. Golijov casts Lorca (appearing in Margarita's memory) as a mezzo, here an utterly charming Kelley O'Connor, and so suggests a parallel between Mariana's death and Lorca's, or perhaps rather makes Lorca into something like a tragic heroine. The arias in the selection certainly present suffering intensity in a typically "operatic" way, in music that synthesizes flamenco and other Spanish idioms. In this performance, at least, Dawn Upshaw as (presumably) Margarita was a grand diva-tragedienne but steered clear of camp. Some might find the relentless intensity hard work, and balk at the apparent complete lack of humour. Others would love to hear and see the complete opera.
Ayre, the planned highlight of the programme, got an equally superb, if more polyglot and polyphonic, performance from Dawn Upshaw, but seemed unfocussed by comparison. A collection of found texts from, mainly mediaeval Spanish, Christian, Moslem and Jewish texts, Golijov set in a similarly synthetic idiom, often recalling the style of Ainadamar, but with much sharper shifts of tone, from lyrical trad-folk-like textures to heavy rock. The lyrics are an unruly mixture of the spiritual and the terrifyingly fleshly. The most striking of the latter, "A mother roasted and ate her beloved son" suggests that the plot of Il Trovatore did not come from nowhere, although there is presumably a ritual context, as suggested by the incantatory setting. An Arabic-language Good Friday poem set to a old French melody was particularly moving.
Golijov's band, Andalucian Dogs, assembled to perform Ayre, seemed much more at home with the music than the BBCSO, quite understandably, and matched Upshaw for emotional impact. It was impressive to see Gustavo Santoalalla, owner of a couple of Golden Globes and an Oscar nomination for his music for Brokeback Mountain, putting in a low-key appearance.