allowed whiffs of his favourite rare exotic tobacco to twirl
lazily towards the ceiling as a new soundtrack created appropriate
ripples amongst the rich background of Victorian flocked patterns
on the walls. “Hmmmm, interesting,” he said,
making a long arm towards his laptop. “Time to re-decorate,
but first: there is no problem made of man which cannot be solved
by another, so to work – the game is afoot!”.
Plenty of information
on Osvaldo Golijov can be found on his own website,
but easily the most important information you will need is that
of a Jewish background, and a creative personality in a state
of “constant migration: that has been the story of my life.” Oceana
is Golijov’s third CD on DG, and according to the blurb he
“has established himself in the league
of the most wanted composers of today.” I’m not sure who else
is a member of this league or for what they are wanted, but with
Oceana Deutsche Grammophon have pinned their colours to
the mast for a third time, having previously represented Golijov
with albums called Ayre and Ainadamir. Golijov’s
Yiddish childhood, the indigenous Spanish of his years in Argentina
and the poetry of Spain and New England are all cited as influences,
yet the composer resists the “eclectic” definition: “That sounds
too much as if I’m manipulating from the outside”, he says. He
talks instead about “inner voices” that inspire his musical thoughts:
the rhythmic throb of a Yiddish musical background, the dark colours
in the voice of Luciana Souza, and the radiance in the voice of
his ‘muse’ Dawn Upshaw.
The works on this
disc are certainly unproblematic in the approachability stakes.
The title work Oceana is written for orchestra, three
guitars, harp and voice, and is filled with a Latin and jazz
feeling. Soloist Luciana Souza was “Female Jazz Singer of the
Year” in the USA in 2005, and her acute sense of rhythm and
style help the work along, but to my mind this is the least
successful work on this disc. You can see it as a kind of ‘Concerto
Grosso’, with the chamber ensemble alternating with the choir
and orchestra, but the extremes between the two groups gives
the material an un-integrated feel. It reminds me of the problems
I once had conducting a piece written in similar fashion for
a brass ensemble on the ground against a carillon in a high
tower, but such logistical problems are surely unnecessary in
such a piece as Oceana. Here they are an inevitable by-product
of setting a chorus and orchestra against guitars, harp and
a jazz singer, but then, why the huge chorus and orchestra?
An association of Bach is cited in the genesis of this work,
so why not use all that marvellous new performance practice
and have a more chamber orientated ‘grosso’ set-up: single voices
and an amplified string quartet maybe? I’m sure the Kronos Quartet
would have sounded less tubby and uncomfortable than the Atlanta
strings in full cry, and a group like ‘The Sixteen’ would have
provided a much cleaner vocal effect. The jazzy moments with
singer and sexed-up chamber ensemble work well enough, but their
juxtaposition even with that gentle choral concluding movement
for me make this an unfortunate, lumpy chimera of a work.
was written for the Kronos Quartet, and its meditative two movements
“is about pain, but pain seen from inside and from a distance.”
There are references to François Couperin’s settings for the
Tenebrae service for Holy Week, and while there are plenty of
neo-baroque passages the string writing includes some of those
glorious glissandi which are so expressive of anguish in Jewish
The best and most
interesting pieces here are the Three Songs. There are
some moments of Hollywood quasi-sentimentality, but with that
bitter-sweet lyricism which only a Jewish composer could create
we can all have a good wallow in Golijov’s Weltschmerz and
nice settings of some cracking poetry.
As far as performance
goes these appear to be good enough renditions of these works.
The Atlanta Symphony Chorus is a bit rough and shouty, but this
may be what the composer intended – the recording doesn’t really
help them in this regard either, with the balance making the
orchestra as good as inaudible. The Kronos Quartet is of course
a byword in contemporary music, and Tenebrae pours out
of them like a cool drink on a sunny afternoon. We all love
Dawn Upshaw and she makes the Three Songs very much her
own, although I have a feeling that the Atlanta Symphony strings
were still dealing with some of the ‘issues’ in the work, including
some confused souls left behind at the end of the ‘Gallop’
at 7:14 in the first song; oops. Colourless Moon is a
gorgeous, simple setting with light brushes of string sound,
beautifully illustrating Rosalia de Castro’s moving text.
All in all this
is a nice enough disc, but that is where I have my biggest beef.
I have no problem with Golijov, and have every respect for his
art. Part of what makes me uncomfortable is the bizarre amount
of hype DG and others seem to want to create around this amiable
music. ‘Profoundly shifting the geography of the classical music
world’? How exactly? The gentle meanderings of Tenebrae are
described as ‘intensely disturbing.’ Erm, no, I don’t get that
in the least – even with the associations given in the booklet
text you would have to be a very sensitive soul to be intensely
disturbed by Tenebrae. The Three Songs do deserve
a place as core orchestral song repertoire, working well together
despite being drawn from a disparate variety of sources, and
in the end it is up to the listener to make up their own mind
– the DH website has sound samples for those intrigued but unsure.
If you like a bit
of large-scale Steve Reich choral writing mixed like the rings
of a tree with a touch of the gentler Geffen label jazz fusion
style (Oceana), Gavin Bryars in miniature (Tenebrae),
or ‘klezmer’ John Adams (just about everything – but that says
more about John Adams) then this may indeed be one for your
collection. For myself, I listened long and hard for ‘wow’ or
‘ooooh’ moments, the ones that give you goose-bumps, bring tears
to your eyes, make you rend your garment or make you want to
dance and sing for joy at being alive in the presence of such
music, and am sad to say I can’t point you toward much in the
way of samples to savour.
“Holmes, you appear
restless” exclaimed Watson, “What is your problem….?”
The great man had
been writhing is his deep armchair for the past ten minutes
in what appeared to be a state of mild mental agitation.
“That’s it!” he
cried, “there is no problem…!”
Julie Williams has also listened to this
disc includes major pieces for two singers who have particularly
inspired the composer: the American soprano Dawn Upshaw and
the bronze-voiced Brazilian folk singer Luciana Souza. Sandwiched
between these is a quieter, more reflective work for the Kronos
Quartet, who have also recorded the composer’s Dreams and
Prayers of Isaac the Blind.
has a distinctive voice which defies classification. His work
generally, and this disc especially, have a diverse range of
cultural influences. Of Eastern European Jewish origin, he grew
up in Argentina and now lives in Boston, USA, after a time in
Israel. Yet his sound is an integrated cosmopolitan synthesis
rather than a jumbled cultural ragbag.
its driven, forward-looking motion and clear international references,
one of its closest comparisons is to the work of another Jewish
modernist composer now living on the USA's East Coast - Steve
Reich. One might think too, in passing (despite the differing
forces and types of works they have written for), of another
living American composer who spent her youth in South America
- Joan Towers.
first work has a Latin sound, reminiscent at times of Portuguese
fado. It is accessible and pleasant. Texts for the settings
of poetry - both here and in the Three Songs - would
be helpful for the listener and their absence is an unfortunate
omission from the notes. The sense of the sea and its tides
is clearly created in the tones and rhythms of the singing and
Tenebrae are quieter and more inward in mood and tone,
yet powerful and moving. There was a certain controversy about
a Jewish composer taking inspiration from a Christian liturgy,
but the result is respectful, reflective and inspiring. Golijov
may be writing from a different perspective than a Christian
composer setting liturgy of their own faith, but he creates
a work of universal consolation and prayerfulness. By the way
that has controversy also stirred around Golijov’s larger-scale
St Mark Passion - a recording of which, also featuring
Luciana Souza, will be released by Deutsche Grammophon in 2008.
aspect of looking from outside is echoed in the composer's words
to the musicians in rehearsal for the first performance, 'The
work is about pain, but pain seen from inside and from a distance.'
He also described inspiration coming from taking his son to
the planetarium in New York and seeing an image of the earth
from space. The work manages at once to be very interior, intense
and on a small scale, yet to have a feeling of space and distance
and universality - as also found, despite their very different
sound-worlds, in the works of Kancheli and of Pärt.
'Three Songs' for Dawn Upshaw are strongly influenced
by the composer's work alongside Taraif de Hadouks; there is
a raw, almost Cossack energy to them. This is strongest in the
first of the three, the exciting 'Night of the Flying Horses',
which has haunting melodies which stick obstinately in the brain.
There is perhaps a debt also to Haydn, whose string quartet
is known for the galloping sounds it evokes in its outer movements.
The other songs also have a haunting quality, but are mournful
and yearning. Both are settings of poetry - again, regrettably
lyrics not provided; a lament by the Galician poet Rosalia de
Castro (and used also in the St Mark Passion) and two
poems by Emily Dickinson, set in response to the death of a
close friend of the composer and accompanied by a sighing bass
music is distinctive, eclectic and exciting; at once both profound
and accessible. Everyone performs well; Dawn Upshaw displays
versatility in addition to singing with a luminous quality.
Souza's voice is natural and unforced yet powerful. The disc
is a good showcase for the range of Golijov's talent; it is
also thoroughly enjoyable.
details of discography and forthcoming performances are on Golijov’s website and
more information about his work is at the DG