Osvaldo Golijov
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Azul (2006): Notes
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From air to air, like an empty net,
I went wandering between the streets and the atmosphere,
arriving and saying goodbye
Someone waiting for me among the violins
met with a world like a buried tower
sinking its spiral below the layered leaves
color of raucous sulfur:
and lower yet, in a vein of gold,
like a sword in a scabbard of meteors,
I plunged a turbulent and tender hand
to the most secret organs of the earth.

  –Pablo Neruda, from "The Heights of Macchu Picchu" (translated by Nathaniel Tran)

From his landmark work Pasión según San Marcos ("The Passion According to St. Mark") to collaborations with such frequent partners as soprano Dawn Upshaw, the St. Lawrence String Quartet, and vocalist Luciana Souza, Osvaldo Golijov composes with the abilities and enthusiasms of his performers firmly in mind. Azul ("Blue"), his cello concerto, is no exception. In conceiving this work, which cellist Yo-Yo Ma and the Boston Symphony Orchestra premiered last summer, Golijov concluded that Ma hardly needed yet another virtuosic concerto to show off his technical abilities.

So with this fact and with the emotional journey suggested by Neruda's poem in mind, Azul invokes a meditative energy quite different than many of Golijov's earlier works. "I'm interested in a whole new palette of surface and spiritual color," he says. It is a spirit that hearkens back to the Baroque era and the feeling of spaciousness inherent in works by composers such as Francois Couperin. (Indeed, the initial version of Azul was itself a revisiting of material from Golijov's 2002 Tenebrae for soprano and string quartet, which drew upon Couperin's famed Leçons de Tenebrae for inspiration.)

Rather than drawing upon the standard classical sonata form that gives the basic shape to many familiar Romantic-era concertos, Golijov's inspiration for Azul is instead rooted in Baroque structures such as the chaconne and the passacaglia. The composer argues that the context of our era demands such aesthetic choices. "I find that these forms resonate better in our times," says the composer firmly. "We don't have an Enlightenment right now to support the use of sonata form in a concerto, in which a soloist dominates the group. Instead, we live in a time where the individual occupies a smaller place."

In hewing with his habit of viewing composing as a mutual collaboration with a performer, Golijov found that he wanted to make certain other revisions to suit the youthful soloist Alisa Weilerstein, whom Golijov calls "tremendously inspiring. At this time in life, when I am no longer the young one," he laughs, "she has such an incredible thirst and energy, an eagerness to explore, and an understanding of the repertory that is out of proportion to her age."

The context of a performance's place and space also matters greatly to Golijov. The locale for Azul's world premiere in its original incarnation was at the BSO's summer home of Tanglewood, a venue where patrons, lying in the cool grass, enjoyed the night sky as a ceiling as the sounds of the cellist and orchestra wafted out into the evening air. In contrast, a traditional enclosed concert hall setting such as tonight's, by its very nature, carries a different charge for both performers and listeners.

Golijov has also somewhat shifted Azul's emotional terrain. In its original incarnation, according to the composer, its mood was a sustained state of bliss "without having earned that bliss." While maintaining its contemplative spirit, the revised piece creates a sense of spiritual journey and quest, an arc suggested by Neruda's words: it begins in the air and then plunges deep into the earth before soaring upwards again.

© 2007 by Anastasia Tsioulcas
These Notes cannot be reprinted without the author's permission