Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Trying to get Golijov

I've tried to love the music of Osvaldo Golijov, but it doesn't seem to be working out.
I first came across him before I knew who he was, so to speak, in the form of his La Pasión según San Marcos. I now know that this 2000 work, one of four passions commissioned by Helmut Rilling, was a triumph that helped Golijov on his way to becoming a major name, but at the time it struck me as rather ho-hum. Sure, the use of Latin American rhythms was intriguing, but the whole thing seemed a little too removed from what I would consider a Passion. I had what you might call theological issues with it; there were times when the music seemed a little too joyful considering what was going on. Yes, at bottom the psychological torment, brutal torture, and execution of Jesus are supposed to be a good thing, but I suppose Golijov's La Pasión finally brought home the sheer perversity of celebrating such violence. And although musically the work was entertaining, I just couldn't help thinking the dreaded word "crossover". But then I learned that people who know a lot more about classical music than I do were acclaiming it as a boundary-pushing masterpiece so I thought maybe I better just shut up.
Listening to another Golijov album, a 2007 release with Oceana, Tenebrae, and Three Songs on it, I have to say I'm still bemused by all the acclaim he's received. Oceana (from poetry by Pablo Neruda) picks up where
La Pasión leaves off, or rather vice versa: Oceana is what prompted Rilling to commission Golijov's Passion, and it is in the same idiom. It's all very atmospheric, and aside from the Brazilian scat singing I suppose I like it. The final "Chorale of the Reef" is quietly intense but as I was listening - and enjoying it - I was for some reason struck by the idea that what the work really needed was a beautiful instrumental movement. What popped into my head at that point was Ennio Morricone's Gabriel's Oboe, and that illustrates very well where I stand with Golijov: he sounds like a really good film composer.
This impression was borne out by the next work on the disc, Tenebrae for string quartet. Again, wonderfully atmospheric; Golijov cites as inspirations his witnessing of violence in Israel, a trip to a planetarium, and Francois Couperin's Tenebrae Lamentations. But now I was thinking of Max Richter, last encountered on the Shutter Island soundtrack helping Leo diCaprio feel morose. Golijov's Tenebrae is beautiful but at the same time there seems to be something missing - a feeling of newness. Too often I'm merely reminded of other music - a generic sad bit in a movie; a Haydn slow movement; French viol music. The problem is that I feel like what I'm responding to is that other music, not Golijov's use of it.
It's the same with "Night of the Flying Horses", the first of the Three Songs - what stands out immediately is how wonderfully ethnic-sounding it is (a ballad in Yiddish followed by Gypsy music). Golijov really knows how to use his tropes. For me, this ultimately is what puts me off his music. Yes, I may enjoy it while I listen to it, but I feel like the whole is less than the sum of its parts.
Am I missing something, or is that it? Is the thing that I don't like about Golijov's music exactly the same as the thing that other people do like about it? I have a suspicion that one of the reasons for La Pasión's success was that pointy-headed classical types were happy to finally encounter some "proper" music you could actually tap your feet to, and that its acclaim was perhaps something of an overcompensation. Maybe. In Fanfare in 2006, Robert Carl wrote this: "If anyone has noticed, my response to Osvaldo Golijov’s output so far has been ambivalent—I’ve always admired his imagination, deep musicality, and multicultural grasp, but at the same time the music has seemed variable to me. At times I find it enormously inventive, stunning in the risks taken and met; at others it sounds a little generic, relying too much on easy musical tropes from different ethnic traditions". Carl says all this in a review of Golijov's opera Ainadamar, which he praises to the skies, noting "I’ve finally “got it,” in the sense that until now the whole world has been celebrating the composer while I’ve been standing on the sidelines... Above all, this is the first Golijov piece where I hear not just a deeply talented composer, but a great spirit emerging. I’ll still maintain a certain skepticism in future encounters, but I now know that his music can deserve the praise that’s been showered on it."
So perhaps there's still hope for me and Golijov.

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