This week's listening is brought to you by a gem of a composer and rockstar of the 21st century, Osvaldo Golijov. Golijov was THE composer for the better part of a decade coming into the 2000s, with an absolutely sensational new take on story of Jesus with his work La Pasión según San Marcos. His reign was peppered by additional works such as his opera Ainadamar, a major song set called Ayre, and a number of other chamber works and large orchestral works. The music is fierce, guttural, earthy, and—most importantly—real, with a highly collaborative energy that is more mediated by him as a composer rather than ruled. Sadly, his popularity declined significantly moving into the 2010s as he began to miss deadlines for his commissions and was stained by an incredibly controversial plagiarism accusation.
Azul is maybe less on the radar than some of his other works, but Golijov's version of a cello concerto, paired with his standard small orchestra and chamber group of minions, is worth a listener's ear for its 24-minute journey.
A brief overview of Golijov
Much of Golijov's story has not been written yet, as he is still very much alive and active as a composer and teacher. His background is often a topic of great interest as it is immensely diverse and has significantly informed his style: he was born in Argentina to a Jewish family of immigrants that had relocated from Romania. In 1983, his compositional studies took him to Israel, and then to the University of Pennsylvania in 1986 to study with George Crumb. He has been teaching at the College of the Holy Cross since 1991, and has held a number of significant positions in tandem, such as the Richard and Barbara Debs Composer's Chair at Carnegie Hall, as well as serving on the faculty at Tanglewood.
Likely due to his close collaboration relationships, I have always found his music to require a fair amount of guess work to put everything together, probably because the work done to produce his music does not always result in an updated score. However, all of the pieces I have been apart of by either producing or simply as an audience member, is ALWAYS worth the effort.
A bit about the piece
Despite not appearing in the score itself, there is a nice collection of notes available on Golijov's website concerning the piece. It is a work designed to undergo a spiritual journey and quest, and is heavily influenced by an excerpt from The Heights of Macchu Picchu by Pablo Neruda. As the composer openly states, though it is effectively a cello concerto, he draws more on baroque formal structures to even out the terrain between the soloist and ensemble.
Admittedly, this piece is WAY cooler live—as most acoustic music is—but some of the things I am still amazed by is his use of color, especially with the strings. The opening alone is a simple descending bass (a passacaglia, if you will) peppered with glimmering harmonics in the upper strings. And at the end, you are bombarded with unceremonious seagull effects that provide a sense of lifting into the air. In addition to all of this, there is also the Golijov "WTF" moment, where I cannot help by suddenly feel like I missed part of the piece or think I am listening to something completely different (I have a similar experience when listening to Ayre between the second and third songs, and several of his other pieces that use the Kaddish and Gallop), as well as the ever-present use of the hyper accordion, always performed by Michael Ward-Bergman.
If you are new to Golijov, I think this can be a good piece to start with for his orchestral music, but I would definitely encourage you to explore his larger-scale orchestral works from earlier, as well as attempt to see them live since the music is only about half of the experience.