Osvaldo Golijov

Last Round [string orchestra version; UK première]
Tekyah [UK première]
Ainadamar Arias and Ensembles [World première]
Ayre [European premiere]

Dawn Upshaw (soprano) [Ainadamar; Ayre]

Jessica Rivera (soprano) & Kelley O’Connor (mezzo-soprano) [Ainadamar]

David Krakauer (clarinet) & Michael Ward-Bergeman (hyper-accordion) [Tekyah]

The Andalucian Dogs [Ayre]

BBC Symphony Orchestra
Roberto Minczuk [Last Round; Tekyah; Ainadamar]

Reviewed by: Nick Breckenfield

Reviewed: 31 January, 2006
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

Just a fortnight after the Barbican Hall resounded to the music of the grand old man of American music, Elliott Carter, courtesy of the BBC Symphony Orchestra, musicians from that ensemble were back to celebrate a new voice on the American music-scene, currently all the rage Stateside, Argentinean-composer with Russo-Jewish forebears, Osvaldo Golijov. He is the focus of two Barbican Great Performers concerts; the other is on 24 February – that of his calling card, “St Mark Passion”.

That’s not to say that this first concert was a total success. As football pundits are fond of saying, it was a game of two halves, the first of which I enjoyed, while the second rapidly followed the law of diminishing returns.

Golijov has an easy, eclectic composing style. His Argentine heritage bestowed on the first piece, Last Round, an authentic twang of Astor Piazzolla, in a new version of his string ensemble piece originally commissioned by the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group in 1996. With the BBCSO’s principal string-players standing around Brazilian conductor Roberto Minczuk, and the larger string ensemble seated beyond, the distinctive swooping tango sound was beguiling.

Golijov’s Russian-Jewish heritage came to the fore in the extraordinary Tekyah, originally commissioned for BBCTV’s Holocaust commemoration, “A Musical Memorial from Auschwitz”, marking the 60th-anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau. The Hebraic title means “shofar blast” and sets its two soloists, clarinettist David Krakauer and accordionist Michael Ward-Bergeman (curiously his name hidden in the programme, with only a asterisk to connect him with the piece, despite Krakauer getting separate billing), in front of an array of brass along the back wall; come the end, the players all played the shofar, the long ram’s horn that together made a baleful, elemental sound, as if emanating from the ground. Once heard, never to be forgotten: ten shofars made an impact that was by far the most compelling five minutes of the concert.

I also liked the world premiere of a concert suite taken from Golijov’s 2003 opera “Ainadamar”, first heard at Tanglewood in 2003, repeated by the Los Angeles Philharmonic in 2004 and fully staged by Peter Sellars at San Diego’s open-air Opera Festival, before being heard in New York’s Avery Fisher Hall (and to be released in September by Deutsche Grammophon, given by the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra conducted by Robert Spano). Here “Arias and Ensembles” featured sopranos Jessica Rivera and Dawn Upshaw as well as the impossibly-rich mezzo Kelley O’Connor, all three of whom were in Sellars’s production, Rivera as Nuria and O’Connor as Federico Garcia Lorca, whose shooting in 1936 is central to the story. It also features one of the heroines of his plays, Mariana Pineda, who was also assassinated, in 1831, and whose statue Lorca’s window used to overlook. Also integral to the tale is actress Margarita Xirgu, preparing for a performance of “Mariana Pineda” in Uruguay in 1969, just before her own death.

Golijov weaves the different times and characters in hauntingly beautiful ways, and the half-hour work was engrossing and affecting, O’Connor’s rich tone especially notable. Its Spanish sensibilities – mixing Jewish, Islamic and Christian styles – are incredibly infectious, even though the mood is almost all one of regret and nostalgia. The three voices were amplified, each with discreet head microphones, but the overall balance between orchestra and soloists was extremely well manipulated, which is the major difference between that and the second half.

This reduced the forces something like seven-fold, but “Ayre” produced an assault on the ears that almost turned me off Golijov for good. Played by The Andalucian Dogs, formed especially by Golijov for the Carnegie Hall premiere in March 2004. Again with Golijov’s muse, Dawn Upshaw, “Ayre” is a 45-minute song-cycle (pronounced ‘eye-rah’ and meaning ‘air’ or ‘melody’ in medieval Spanish) and, again, relies on the cultural mix of Spain for its texts and musical inspirations. Unfortunately, one of the 11-strong band is a billed as “sound design/laptop” and – as early as the third song – we were tortured by drumbeats far too loud for even the rest of the amplified instruments.

This performance failed miserably because of its reliance of amplification, where none was needed. We were sitting in a concert hall built to hear acoustic music, where I’ve heard great singers easily able to be heard against the textures of Wagner’s and Richard Strauss’s large orchestras – without the aid of amplification. Why then does an ensemble of ten musicians playing acoustic instruments (I’m discounting the laptop) – flute, clarinet, horn, viola, cello, double bass, harp, hyper-accordion, guitar and percussion – need to be amplified? Which then means that Dawn Upshaw needs to be amplified. NO! NO! STOP IT AT ONCE!

At one point, late on, Upshaw forgot all about her vocal technique and barks words out, which accompanied by the electronic racket made for one of the most unpleasant sounds I have ever heard in the Barbican Hall. Surely the musicians are good enough to do this work without any amplification? In “Ainadamar” the BBCSO’s percussionists David Hockings and Kevin Nutty spent most of that score simply clapping, and their different beats carried easily. And Dawn Upshaw’s own percussion role, opening “Ayre” with the delicate chime of temple bells would have been even more effective…

Given the aural disfigurement the music was put through, I’m afraid any sense behind the words was totally lost. A major disappointment – and it beggars belief that so many gifted performers can simply go along with such disregard of their talent. PUT A STOP TO IT NOW – LET US HEAR YOU WITHOUT AMPLIFICATION!

“Ayre” marks the first of a number of Deutsche Grammophon releases of the music of Osvaldo Golijov. Fairly closely miked, it emulates the more distressing factors of the live performance, without the benefit of being able to see Upshaw and her temple bells. Let’s hope for so much less from the forthcoming recording of “Ainadamar”.

BBC Radio 3 is broadcasting this concert on Thursday 16 February at 7.30 p.m.; the first half is a must and – given a sympathetic recording – “Ayre” may also be better on the radio.

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