Saturday, June 14, 2008

Composer Golijov's Isaac the Blind in Atlanta

(reflections on two concerts by the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, Robert Spano conducting.)

Let's add Osvaldo Golijov to my list of favorite composers. It's his 1994 piece The Dreams and Prayers of Isaac the Blind that tipped the balance in his favor.

Thanks to Robert Spano, this Argentinian Jewish professor at Juillard is nearly Atlanta's favorite son composer. I've seen several of his pieces here in Atlanta: Oceana (twice!), his St. Mark Passion, and Ainadamar. Several times, I've seen him in person, accepting accolades, or being questioned by Spano. All of those are dramatic vocal pieces, and I have to admit that my lasting impressions of each are of fascinating and appealing sections marred by strident vocal sounds.

In this piece, soloist Todd Palmer played an array of clarinet-family instruments with a string orchestra. The program notes tell about the music's relationship to the ancient blind rabbi of the title, but it didn't help to learn that the clarient is playing in Aramaic, Yiddish, and Hebrew, and that the musicians should ideally be playing by memory so that they can play "blind" like the ancient rabbi. The only practical advice I got from the notes was to expect Klezmer sounds in the middle section, with slower outer movements. To me, that means to expect some wailing on the clarinet, and a lot of noodling in a minor key over a slow boom-chika-boom accompaniment that gradually picks up to whirling speed. (I arranged a pastiche in that style just last week.)

Golijov delivered on expectations, and transformed them.

The strings laid down a very quiet, tense sound. Often, Spano conducted, not by beating, but by lifting fingers one, two, three, as high as six, cuing shifts from one uncounted measure to the next. Strings responded by adding a new note to a growing cluster, or sometimes adding a rhythmic figure to the mix.

The clarinetist began very quietly with very long, sustained notes, none quieter than his first very low note, so quiet that I wasn't sure that he was playing at all until it slowly bloomed. Yes, there were some wails, and Golijov made sure that each of the different clarinets was stretched to its extremes. If these had been voices, it might have struck me as strident: Golijov is obviously capable of being a showman, and he knows that the biggest applause goes for the highest notes.

The stereotyped boom-chika accompaniment first showed up, not just slow, but stretched out over a dozen measures, ten times slower than expected. Eventually, in the middle section, we did get exactly that klezmer sound I expected. But Golijov surprised us -- and Spano suddenly cut the fast action off mid-phrase. It built up again, and was cut off again. Now that Golijov set up that expectation, it was time for him to find another variation on that trick -- and found one again. A couple of the cut-offs were funny; the last one merits a gulp.

This was masterful writing that put on a good show of virtuosity for soloist, conductor, and orchestra, and turned expectations upside - down, and yet also delayed gratification, requiring patience and attention from the audience.

Last week, Spano and pianist Jean - Yves Thibaudet premiered a piano concerto by Behzad Ranjbaran, an American composer of Iranian family background. That, too, was lots of fun, and a great show. Occasionally, the composer brought out sounds that reminded me of any scene in any scary movie when the monster rises up out of the darkness; and the last movement, jogging along in six-eight time, had a minor melody that made me giggle because, in feel, it was sort of "the Teddy Bear's Picnic." But often, the composer brought the volume down and let the harp, piano, and some other instruments play with motifs, and those long stretches were luscious.

Last week, we heard Rachmaninoff's Third Symphony, and last night, Stravinsky's Firebird. Nothing new to say about those, except, Gosh! What colors! What variety! What showmanship! And, re: Firebird's final movement: "Man, Stravinsky sure knows how to write a tune you can hum!"

No comments: