Hot and cold

By LLOYD SCHWARTZ  |  December 11, 2007

Dutilleux has said that he wants to add a fourth song to this relatively short piece, a drinking song. He may be right, though I’m not sure I want to hear anything after the poignant fade-out. Rather than appearing on stage, the 91-year-old composer approached the performers from the center aisle and accepted the warm reception from there.

The other day, I received from Deutsche Grammophon a CD of Osvaldo Golijov’s soundtrack music for the new Francis Ford Coppola film, Youth Without Youth. It’s a soupy, saccharine, derivative score, an imitation of the kind of hyper-Romantic, post- (and pseudo-) Mahlerian movie music that doesn’t make me want to see the movie. What sounds like a scratchy record of an old pre–World War II song by the Italian songwriting team Vittorio Mascheroni and Giuseppe Mendes seems the one genuine moment. That evening, at the BSO concert, I heard, though on a more sophisticated level, more of the same: two Golijov pieces for cello — well, not just cello, but Yo-Yo Ma — and orchestra.

I’ve liked some of Golijov’s earlier music, and I was quite taken by the first movement of Ausencia (“Absence”), for Ma and strings. This is a substantial cello solo, originally composed in 1991 as Omaramor (named after a Tanglewood Fellowship given in memory of the exiled Argentine playwright Omar del Carlo) and using, in Golijov’s words, “the transfigured harmonies of [Carlos] Gardel’s ‘Mi Buenos Aires querido,’ lying like stones over which the water of the cello’s stream is running.” It begins with a mortal groan and becomes increasingly animated, turning into Golijov’s version of a Bach solo cello suite with Baroque dance rhythms, occasional strumming, and a dramatic dying glissando. Gardel’s popular ’30s tune remains intricately woven into the texture. Ma was mesmerizing.

Then, without a break, the strings come in for the second movement, Death of the Angels, part of another previous work, Golijov’s response to learning that tango master Astor Piazzolla had suffered a stroke. The Gardel song returns, but more overtly and, as the title suggests, more soulfully, more conventionally dripping with sobbing, throbbing nostalgia.

Ausencia was followed by Azul (“Blue”), a concerto-like piece for amplified cello, “hyperaccordion” (invented and played superlatively by Michael Ward-Bergeman), and percussion, with full orchestra, in four movements plus two codas. Also reworked from a piece conceived for Tanglewood, it’s flamboyant even indoors (miles away from Dutilleux’s sonic refinement), with striking passages, like the second-movement (“Silencio”) slow duet for cello and accordion, but also with gimmicky birdcalls, splashing waves, vocal outcries, a Middle Eastern dance in (I think) the fourth movement, “Yrushalem” (the movements run together and I wasn’t sure where some of them began), and what sounds like a spaceship disappearing into the blue. There’s a big sloshy trombone solo, a corny cello anthem, and a climactic explosion for cello and brass that could be a soundtrack behind the film cliché of lovers rushing at each other in slow motion. I found all this sentimental and manipulative, with little genuine musical inventiveness. But the audience went wild. I guess Golijov is giving people what they want.

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