Osvaldo Golijov
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Azul, for cello and orchestra, to receive world premiere
 
On August 4th, Yo-Yo Ma will be the soloist in the world premiere of Azul, for cello and orchestra. The work, a Boston Symphony Orchestra 125th Anniversary Commission, will feature the BSO and conductor Donnald Runnicles in performance at Tanglewood. On August 6th, Azul will receive its second performance, with Mr. Ma joined by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and conductor Miguel Harth-Bedoya at Ravinia.

The following is an excerpt from Robert Kirzinger's program notes for the premiere of the work:

In conceiving the piece Azul, Golijov knew immediately that he didn't want to write a virtuoso solo showcase for Yo-Yo Ma, who has many such pieces already in his repertoire. Rather he chose to eschew bombast for contemplation, and wrote a work that is not a concerto, somewhat in the sphere, Golijov says, of Berlioz's non-concerto for viola Harold in Italy, although here there is no literary impulse behind the music. Among the various ways the composer has thought about Azul is as a 21st-century Baroque adagio, such as those by Handel or Bach. In fact it is the French Baroque composer Couperin who, as in others of Ma's pieces, stands as a model. Azul began as a reconsideration of Golijov's earlier Tenebrae for soprano and string quartet, which itself is based partly on the melismatic settings of Hebrew letter names in Couperin's Lešons de Tenebrae. Golijov wanted to "evoke the majesty of certain Baroque adagios," and recapture for the present that ability of the late Baroque composers to suspend time without stopping motion in their music, and to achieve somehow for himself the special light-filled airiness that one hears in Couperin.

The piece, then, takes as a starting point the basic structural idea of Golijov's Tenebrae, which is a series of melismas (long, sometimes florid melodic lines sung on one syllable of a text; the idea can be extended metaphorically to instrumental music) alternating with interludes. This foundation is audible in the first part of the Azul. Overall the piece is cast in one long movement, heard as two large parts, which are made up of smaller episodes. The weight of the whole is on the second part, some two-thirds of total duration of the piece, which is set off by a slow, substantial passage ("Silencio") for the soloist with very light orchestral accompaniment. From time to time the Baroque form of the chaconne is called up, with "looped" harmonic patterns holding sway for a time before the music's journey continues on a new path.

The composer describes the orchestra as being an "antenna" for the soloist, a collective body taking in and processing various musical energies and creating auras, halos, around the cello's music. The ensemble is arranged onstage in a very specific way, with each group of instruments having its discrete function. The soloist sits to the left of the conductor, who is in the usual downstage center position. Mirroring the soloist at conductor right is an accordionist, its sound so unexpected within the orchestra, and a percussionist is at the center directly in front of the conductor—these are Golijov's "21st-century continuo," another echo of the Baroque tradition. The strings are positioned in concentric symmetrical arcs behind these performers: closest to the conductor on either side are the innermost arcs, each of four violas; behind the violas are the second violins, six per side; behind the seconds are the first violins (again six per side), and in the last arc are the cellos, four per side, connected in the middle rear of the string body by the six basses. The reason for the positioning of the strings so has to do in part with the high strings' role—"the violins, rather than singing, explore overtones of the bass line" with gossamer filigrees.

The rest of the ensemble is in smaller groups. The first horn is placed at the front of the stage far to the conductor's right; mirroring this lone horn is a group of woodwinds on the other downstage side: three flutes, English horn, and basset horn. Behind the cellos to audience left is a brass group: the three remaining horns, three trumpets, and three trombones, conceived as providing musical "interference" to the main proceedings, the part of the antenna receptive to a cosmic radio signal. The corresponding group on the other upstage side is made up of "ringing" instruments meant to stabilize the harmonic world of the soloist: harp, celesta, and pitched percussion.

In creating this unique sound-world Golijov's aim for Azul is to establish an environment sympathetic to communal silence, where the music onstage ebbs and flows through "emergences and submersions" that suggest different levels of focus on the part of the listener. The notion of an orchestra receptive of musical energy is an idea that expands to take in the audience, and expands yet further to take in the space beyond the audience, in a gathering of quiet energy refocused on a soloist playing a cello and a group of musicians on a stage.