Being Osvaldo Golijov probably isn't as easy or fun as we might think. To be annointed as some kind of savior of contemporary composition is bound to be a thankless task: You've got to live up to seemingly impossible standards, while also dodging skepticism of various slants. In conversation, Golijov is unfailingly humble -- and maybe just a bit bewildered, in that you definitely get a sense he doesn't quite know what to make of his precipitous ascension. But he's certainly grateful for the opportunities it affords -- and make no mistake, a chance to work at major institutions with artists such as David Henry Hwang, Dawn Upshaw and Peter Sellars is not taken lightly.
Ainadamar, the chamber opera that Golijov wrote for Tanglewood in 2003 and revised (in collaboration with Sellars) for Santa Fe last year, belatedly arrived in New York this week as the opening shot in a remarkably extensive celebration mounted by Lincoln Center. The 80-minute piece reflects on the death of Spanish poet and playwright Federico García Lorca, and the resonances of his art, via the final memories of actress Margarita Xirgu, a García Lorca intimate.
Tony Tommasini was right on the money when he wrote that Upshaw, as Xirgu, portrays the character with "an emotional vulnerability so real that during her moment of private agony you almost want to avert your eyes." Her powerful performance grew ever richer as the evening progressed. Nuria, the student with whom Xirgu shares her final -- moments? hour? -- was sung by soprano Jessica Rivera, whose tonal purity and earnest delivery brought to mind no one so much as the slightly younger Upshaw herself. As García Lorca, mezzo Kelley O'Conner combined a rich, loamy instrument with arresting stage presence; hers is a name you'll certainly be seeing again, and soon.
Among the supporting players, bass Ricardo Lugo stood out as José Tripaldi, the officer who elicits García Lorca's final confession prior to his execution. The fervent, muezzin-like incantations of Spanish flamenco vocalist Jesus Montoya gave pause; it was troubling to reconcile the animal grace of his sound with the poisonous words he was obliged to sing. Miguel Harth-Bedoya did an admirable job of keeping the Orchestra of St. Luke's in synch with the plethora of recorded and improvised effects Golijov's score requires.
As for said score, it offered what Golijov does best, which is to see past demarcations of genre, ethnicity and high/low culture clash to find a common ground in which the most stirring noises people have created can coexist. In this case, flamenco provided the root from which most of the rest grew, including both poignant love song and complex machine-gun fugue. Still, to suggest that Golijov's scores are nothing but a savvy web of borrowings misses the point that not just anyone could recognize and reconcile the fundamental conjoinings of disparate cultures. Composers have snatched riffs from ethnic modes forever; more importantly -- and contrary to the body politic -- we seem to be collectively remembering lately that the distance between Jewish and Moorish musical fundamentals is less a leap than a nod.
In that light, Golijov emerges as one of the first critically approved high-art creators to successfully bridge not only that small gap, but the larger chasm that comfortably affords him a blatantly (Richard) Straussian trio towards the end, as well as the sampledelic textures that saturate the piece. To my mind and ear, virtually no composer more universalist in scope and intent has yet appeared: Golijov combines all of these things not because it's novel and catchy, but because they all belong to him. Perhaps we react as we do because we recognize all of these things to be in some way our property as well -- a welcome byproduct of the Information Superhighway.
Billed as an opera, Ainadamar ultimately came off more like some kind of passion play, albeit one shot through with a palpable eroticism between two individuals -- García Lorca and Xirgu -- whose intercourse was not sexual, but rather the conjoining of kindred creative souls. The piece felt less like a stage show than a ritual; it can and will readily survive without the window dressing of Guernica graffiti, enlisted naifs and drill-team choreography. And ultimately, that's a good thing. Balances between acoustic and electric elements of the score and the performance tonight were far from ideal; the modest chorus was frequently obscured by instrumental uproar, and occasionally, so were the principals. For that reason, I'm glad to know that a presumably well-judged recording for Deutsche Grammophon is already in the can.
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart - The Symphonies - English Concert/Trevor Pinnock (Archiv)
Paul Hindemith - Symphonic Variations on Themes by Carl Maria von Weber; Concert Music for Strings and Brass; Bela Bartók - The Miraculous Mandarin - Suite - Philadelphia Orchestra/Eugene Ormandy (EMI Classics)
Arnold Schoenberg - Verklärte Nacht; Chamber Symphony; Variations for Orchestra - Los Angeles Philharmonic/Zubin Mehta; Five Pieces for Orchestra - Cleveland Orchestra/Christoph von Dohnányi; Six Songs; Erwartung - Anja Silja, Vienna Philharmonic/Christoph von Dohnányi (London)
Darius Milhaud - Études sur des thèmes liturgiques - Juilliard String Quartet; Abraham Wolf Binder - Two Hassidic Moods - Bochmann String Quartet; Ruth Schonthal - String Quartet No. 3, "In Memoriam Holocaust" - Bingham String Quartet; John Zorn - Kol Nidre - Ilya Kaler, Perrin Yang, George Taylor and Steven Doane; Sholom Secunda - String Quartet in C minor - Bochmann String Quartet (Naxos)
Peter Maxwell Davies - Symphony No. 8, "Antarctic" - Bremen Symphony Orchestra/Peter Maxwell Davies (MaxOpus download)
Brian Eno - Music for Airports - Bang on a Can All-Stars (Point Music)