Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Golijov: today's Ketelby? - is he a great composer or a musical magpie?

Identifying classics-to-be is critical guessing game

By Clarke Bustard
From - Mar 19, 2006

One hundred years ago in Paris, Gabriel Fauré introduced his Piano Quintet, Maurice Ravel wrote his Introduction and Allegro for harp, flute, clarinet and string quartet, and Paul Dukas completed his "Villanelle" for horn and piano.
In Scandinavia, Carl Nielsen's comic opera "Maskarade" premiered in Denmark, and Finland's Jean Sibelius composed "Pohjola's Daughter." In Vienna, Arnold Schoenberg completed his Chamber Symphony No. 1.
The same year saw Alban Berg, Schoenberg's protégé, begin work on his Piano Sonata and the Spaniard Isaac Albéniz begin his piano cycle "Iberia." In Germany, Richard Strauss began composing "Elektra," his most jarring opera.
Those are works still performed and recorded.
Many other products of 1906 -- Ethel Smyth's "The Wreckers," Zoltan Kodaly's "Summer Evening," Max Reger's Serenade, Samuel Coleridge-Taylor's "Kubla Khan," Edvard Grieg's "Moods" -- are largely forgotten.
Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov's "Le Coq d'Or" ("The Golden Cockrell"), also begun in 1906, is still performed, but more often as an orchestral suite than in its original guise as an opera.
Flash forward to 1956, when audiences first heard Leonard Bernstein's "Candide," William Schuman's "New England Triptych," Samuel Barber's "Summer Music," William Walton's Cello Concerto, Ralph Vaughan Williams' Ninth Symphony and Olivier Messiaen's "Oiseaux exotiques" ("Exotic Birds").
The same year, some leading composers of the mid-20th century produced works that barely register today: Igor Stravinsky's "Canticum sacrum," Dmitri Shostakovich's "Katerina Ismailova," Benjamin Britten's "Prince of the Pagodas," Carl Orff's "Nanie and Dithyrambe" and Aram Khachaturian's "Ode of Joy."

Musical trivia? Maybe, but there's a point to the exercise.
A century ago, no one would have predicted that the Dukas would become a staple for horn players, that the harp would flower as a concert instrument and thereby keep the Ravel in regular circulation, or that Schoenberg and Berg would become seminal influences on modern music.
Fifty years ago, who would have guessed that Schuman's opus would outlive Stravinsky's?
There's no telling what compositions being introduced today will still be heard 50 or 100 years from now.
Music critics play this guessing game constantly. At present, you can read plenty of speculation on the potential staying power of new and recent works by Elliott Carter, the 97-year-old American master of intricately structured, intensely cerebral music, and Osvaldo Golijov, the 45-year-old composer of works echoing the tangos of his native Argentina and klezmer and other music from his Jewish heritage.
It seems reasonable to predict that if musicians are still playing Carter in 2056, they'll probably treat Golijov as a producer of musical curios -- much as we now think of Albert Ketelby, the early 20th-century English composer of pop-classical exotica such as "In a Persian Market" and "In a Chinese Temple Garden."
If musicians of the future take Golijov seriously, they'll probably view Carter as a dead-ender, representing the final flowering of 20th-century compositional techniques that complicated music into incomprehensibility.
Or maybe both will still receive respectful hearings, just as we now hear such disparate products of 1906 as the suavely lyrical Fauré quintet and Strauss' psychosis-in-sound "Elektra."
Or maybe by 2056, the piano, fiddles, double reeds, brasses and operatic voices of classical music will be considered antique curiosities, much like we now think of lyres, virginals, serpents and castrati. Solo performers may synthesize Wagner's "Ring" cycle and Mahler's "Symphony of a Thousand" out of microprocessors.
In such a brave new world, even Elliott Carter might sound simplistic.
Musical immortality has always been a crapshoot. And with the dice of the future likely to have 60 or 600 sides instead of six, all bets are off.

Maverick instinct in demand

Robert Sandall meets a modest Osvaldo Golijov
From TheAustralian - March 20, 2006

WHEN you're hot, you're hot, and in the rather chilly world of contemporary composition, nobody is generating more heat than the Argentinian-Jewish composer Osvaldo Golijov. Ahead of a series devoted to his works at London's Barbican Centre last month, music critics lined up to debate whether he is "the first great composer of this century" (the London Observer) or "a dabbler, a stylistic magpie ... [whose] language is, for the time being, sweeping the musical marketplace" (Financial Times).
Sweeping is not too strong a word. With a month-long retrospective, The Passion of Osvaldo Golijov, recently ended at the Lincoln Centre, New York, and a number of big commissions in the pipeline -- including a film score for Francis Ford Coppola, a chamber work for Yo-Yo Ma with the Boston Symphony, and a full-length opera -- Golijov's command of the American marketplace is either impressive or worrying, depending on the height of your brow.
His embrace of traditional and classical styles, which takes in klezmer, Sephardic folk melodies, tango and J.S. Bach, among others, has proved highly attractive to audiences, as has his fondness for using computer-generated rhythm tracks through his laptop on stage.
But are these the right sort of audiences? Or, as the FT man surmised, are they fluffy song-and-dance types, world-music snackers entertained by the "pleasantly exotic" flavour of Golijov's music, but incapable of "sustained concentration"?
The man at the centre of this inquiry looks like Michael Stipe of REM crossed with Woody Allen. He is engagingly modest.
"I am the first one to be baffled by that," he says, when asked about the bandwagon rolling beneath him. "I don't know whether this is going to last two months or two weeks. My success is about a confluence of things in the wider audience. I am only doing what I feel."
As luck, and the zeitgeist, would have it, the feelings Golijov expresses in his music touch on a number of the most sensitive issues of our time, in particular those relating to religious and political tolerance.
His most celebrated work is his St Mark Passion, which was commissioned by the great Bach conductor Helmuth Rilling for the European Music Festival in 2000 and recorded on the Hanssler label. It mixes and matches Gregorian chant, samba, rumba and flamenco, and ends with a traditional Yiddish lament, a kaddish.
"My first reaction to the commission was 'no', because that story was used to perpetuate anti-semitism," Golijov says. "But then I thought, 'This is a central story of humankind and it will help me lose my fear of the other'."
The mob violence directed against Jesus -- a prime example of the evil that, now as ever, can masquerade as righteous anger -- is the central event of Golijov's Passion: "I had to get into the collective madness of the crowd, that need for blood and the sudden fear of God."
Golijov's eclectic take on music derives in large part from the accidents of his upbringing. He was born into a Jewish community in La Plata, a university town south of Buenos Aires. His father was a doctor who took him to hear the nuevo tango of the great local master Astor Piazzolla. His mother was a piano teacher who had him playing the organ in the synagogue as a child, and later initiated him in the wonders of Bach. "In tango, I could hear the same harmonic structures as in the piano music my mother played," he says. "The commonality was greater than the difference."
From Bach's Prelude in B flat major, he learned about serious artistry, "the idea that this piece was not just a melody and an accompaniment, but three separate voices that sounded beautiful simultaneously". With Piazzolla, he loved "the way he was able to distil in his music the life in the street, to make his bandoneon imitate the way people spoke, a bit cocky".
Disgusted with the military dictatorship, Golijov left Argentina after the Falklands war to study composition abroad, first in Jerusalem, then in Philadelphia and finally at the distinguished New England academy, Tanglewood. Here, under Oliver Knussen, he wrote a wild string quartet "that was like my version of punk".
This grew into 1992's Yiddishbbuk, a work that was instantly taken up and played all over the world by those tireless proselytisers for new music, the Kronos Quartet. Their leader, David Harrington, opened many doors, notably to the Romanian gypsy band Taraf de Haidouks, with whom Golijov recorded on Kronos's Caravan album.
His career since has depended less on the patronage of commissioning institutions and more on approaches from individuals who share his maverick instincts: people such as film director Sally Potter, who used him on The Man Who Cried, starring Johnny Depp and Cate Blanchett; and the mezzo-soprano Dawn Upshaw, who engaged him to write the song cycle Ayre for her.
"I feel more comfortable like this, working with and for friends, rather than with an orchestra and conductor," Golijov says, echoing Duke Ellington's remark that he never wrote for the trumpet, only for a trumpeter.
Not that he is setting himself up as the new Duke. Golijov is as aware as any critic of his own limitations where composition is concerned. "I like the idea of a long arc, but I am not good at homogeneity and continuity," he says. "I work by juxtapositions and contrasts. It's primitive, but it works." And it all connects, I suggest, because of its pervasive mood of passionate melancholy. "Maybe that's the luck of being South American and Jewish," he says, self-effacing to the last.

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