For its June issue last year, the British magazine Gramophone gathered a clutch of composers and put Osvaldo Golijov front and — before you opened the fold-out cover — center. (Photo courtesy of J. Henry Fair. Click on photos to enlarge.)
The greatest cultural contribution the Atlanta Symphony has made in recent years, in my view, has been to champion several of these gifted creators — playing their major orchestral scores, commissioning new works, promoting them as central to our concert-going experience. The result is that composers with a stirring new score get much more applause than the performers. This is healthy. For Atlanta audiences, the payoff has been immense.
Last weekend and this weekend, the Atlanta Symphony is exploring South American music with a mini-festival called “Musica Ardiente,” advanced in the AJC. In performance, with several tepid pieces on the bill — and under conductor Miguel Harth-Bedoya’s uncommunicative baton — the festival has felt less a survey of an under-explored region than a good excuse to add two recent Golijov masterpieces into the ASO’s repertoire, with a bit of cultural context. The first is the Argentine composer’s “Mariel.”
The second, “Azul,” is a 29-minute cello concerto that catapulted above all expectation. To call it Golijov’s best work is a frightening statement, as anyone who attended his opera “Ainadamar” will understand. “Blue” in Spanish, “Azul” was composed for cellist Yo-Yo Ma and the Boston Symphony and premiered at Tanglewood in 2006. (ASO principal guest conductor Donald Runnicles led the orchestra on that occasion.) With another cellist and a different orchestra, the composer continued to tinker with the score.
Ma and the ASO played the revised version to close the festival’s concert Friday, a short program of Villa-Lobos (two movements from “Bachianas brasileiras No.4”), Piazzolla’s “Tangazo” and Esteban Benzecry’s colorful, fractured and nightmarish “Colores de la Cruz del Sur,” from 2002.
Then came “Azul.” Golijov found a seed for the concerto in his earlier “Tenebrae,” a prayerful lament that sticks easily in the ear. On this he added migrating bird imagery, inviting us to hear long, powerful wings flapping and soaring, with the accompanying beauty and thrills and weariness. Throughout, the cellist almost never stops, yet the pulse of the music feels gracefully slow. (The solo cello’s first entrance is marked “calm but intense, graceful, a bird in flight.”)
A continuo trio partners with the cellist, giving “Azul” a formal baroque framework, like a modern concerto grosso. The trio’s instruments are at once traditional and far-out, with a hyper-accordion (Michael Ward-Bergeman) and exotic percussion (Cyro Baptista and Keita Ogawa). The souped-up accordion lends the music a sidewalk café quality, too. This is rich stuff.
Bold, serene, intuitive, intricate, the music tugs at emotions deftly, and you’re powerless to resist. In the third movement, the fully-composed cadenza for the soloists goes wild yet remains structured — a lucid frenzy. When the “Tenebrae” motif finally returns, with an added trombone voice, it suggests the completion of a spiritual journey. The long coda takes us out of earth’s orbit, on a tour of deep space.
“Azul” is the most strikingly original piece of music I’ve heard in a long time, and it opens a new phase in the 49-year-old composer’s oeuvre. What might now be called his brilliant “early” works, including the oratorio “La Pasion segun San Marcos” and the opera “Ainadamar,” involve elements of pastiche, sometimes gritty and raw, sometimes blended. “Azul,” and to a lesser extent “Mariel,” show the composer at a new level of expression, his voice mature, melancholy and almost unbearably gorgeous. Golijov, amazingly, just keeps getting stronger.
7/3 Update: The ASO has put online a festival photo gallery.