(Photo by Betty Freeman)
In the music of Osvaldo Golijov I hear a robust proclamation of joy in the creative act. It is a mere dozen years since he first flashed across the horizon with his Yiddishbuk – which, by the way, the St. Lawrence String Quartet will perform on March 25 at UCLA’s Schoenberg Hall – but in those years he has demonstrated an astounding mastery of music in remarkable variety. It helps, of course, that the variety in his composition reflects the pattern of the 44 years (so far) of his own life. Understanding his background – of Eastern European Jewish refugee parents, a boyhood in Argentina, thence to Israel and to the U.S. for study with, among others, George Crumb – makes it easier to reconcile, say, the dark, Judaic lamentations in the Yiddishbuk and the surging, pagan-Christian-Latino vitality of his St. Mark Passion.
Two weeks ago the Philharmonic arranged a small Latin (mostly Argentine) music festival around Golijov’s visit, with his new chamber opera, Ainadamar, as the centerpiece and with associate conductor Miguel Harth-Bedoya (now also out front with the Fort Worth Symphony) here to conduct. Inevitably the orchestral program included music by Argentina’s top-dog composers Alberto Ginastera (the Variaciones Concertantes, which is much more European/ international than indigenous/Latin in style) and Astor Piazzolla (the Bandoneón Concerto, which is very Argentine in style, very charming but also rather naive). Golijov’s Last Round for string orchestra, which the Philharmonic first played two seasons ago, was by some distance the evening’s best work, fragrant and serene.
Golijov’s Ainadamar, which filled the next night’s Green Umbrella program, held the major interest. It lasts but an hour; at its Tanglewood premiere last summer it shared a double bill. Although it’s listed as a “chamber opera,” its performing forces – with a generous percussion contingent, a sound crew and 14 vocal roles – were hardly “chamber”-size. There were moments, in fact, when the enterprise threatened to overflow Disney Hall’s capacious stage – and its electronic equipment as well.
The text, by Broadway’s David Henry Hwang, tells of the death of Spain’s hero-poet Federico García Lorca and of the great actress Margarita Xirgu, whom he memorialized in one of his plays. The aging Margarita, shrouded in flashbacks of her life, occupies center stage; García Lorca himself moves in and out of her shadows. Ainadamar (“Fountain of Tears”) is the spring in Granada near where the poet, yoked to two common criminals, was executed by Franco’s minions at the start of Spain’s Civil War; the opera begins and ends with taped sounds of flowing water.
There are great beauties here, and small imperfections. With all my respect for Hwang’s dramatic sense (M Butterfly, etc.), I find his handling of the timeworn old-lady-flashback formula, with its interminable crowding-in of final echoes and voices, depressingly facile. His play – and therefore its concomitant music – runs out of steam some 10 minutes before its end and thus loses what has been until then a rewarding and haunting experience.
So much, however, is good. There is a tone color in the voice of Dawn Upshaw, a blend of womanliness and intensity, that Golijov knows exactly how to orchestrate; she brings to his music that marvelous power to seek out the exact passion in the simplest melodic turn. (He tells me that he is working on a set of Spanish Sephardic song settings for her. Lucky Osvaldo; lucky Dawn.) As García Lorca there was Kelley O’Connor, a young mezzo, now a graduate student at UCLA, one of those remarkable young artists who arrive in our midst with voice and instincts fully formed from the start. I had seen her in student productions (the Ravel double bill at UCLA last season) when it was too soon to single her out. Now I can. Actually, she reminded me the other night of an occasion 19 years ago, when I happened to be in New York and a manager begged me to come and hear an unknown new singer, and I was bowled over. I have a tape of that event, and I use it instead of pills. It was Dawn Upshaw singing Schubert.
“Cleverness is not necessarily lovely,” Mel Powell once wrote, in lines quoted in a recent REDCAT program, “nor is loveliness necessarily clever.” The California EAR Unit’s recent tribute to their onetime friend and mentor was enough to prove that, in at least one instance of Powell’s music, those attributes did come together. What a treasure was this Mel Powell! Everything in his varied life formed a unity in his music: the early triumphs as a jazz pianist (with the Benny Goodman and Glenn Miller bands as well as his own), the studies with the formidable Paul Hindemith, his pioneering work in electronic music, the teaching, even the early years as a semipro baseball player and tennis nut. His musical legacy is full of sparkling, intricately cut jewelry, some exquisitely infinitesimal and some as expansive as the sunrise.
The REDCAT program was like a bygone civilization brought miraculously to life: a time when the EAR Unit was still a bunch of eager graduate students at CalArts, with Mel Powell among them zooming down the corridors on his motorized wheelchair. Most of their program last month consisted of music Powell had composed for them – as individuals or a group – so that the entire evening was a family affair. It began, in fact, with a “new” media concoction wherein percussion virtuosa Amy Knoles “remixed” an old Mel Powell abstract painting with the ensemble’s recording of Powell’s Immobiles.
Powell’s 1996 Sextet, his last work of consequence, written two years before his death, ended the program, as much a love letter from composer to performers as music can boast. From first note to last, he guided his six players through the art of conversation: the solo statement, the refutation, the argle-bargle, the rumination, the reconciliation. If you need a single work to define the essence of chamber music, let it be this. If you need a single group of supremely dedicated players to define the essence of what it means to make music together, let it be these.