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Yo-Yo Ma plays Golijov with LACO at Royce Hall

January 6th, 2009

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program notes: yo-yo ma plays golijov (written by Christine Lee Gengaro, PhD) Sunday January 11, 2009

* Jeffrey Kahane : conductor
* Yo-Yo Ma : cello
* Michael Ward-Bergeman : hyper-accordion
* Jamey Haddad : percussion
* Keita Ogawa : percussion

The cello is an extraordinary instrument, and Yo-Yo Ma is one of its finest players. The repertoire for the instrument can be as simple and uncomplicated as the Fauré Elegy, or as incredibly complex and difficult as Golijov’s Azul. The genius of Yo-Yo Ma lies in his ability to play both the simple and complex with an amazing intensity and a sense of commitment and dedication. The rhythm of the dance will also play a prominent role in tonight’s program, from the tango-influenced Azul to the Beethoven Symphony that Richard Wagner once described as “the apotheosis of the dance.”

Gabriel Fauré wrote his Elegy for cellist Jules Loeb, who died in 1883, three years after the work was completed. Fauré originally scored the Elegy for cello and piano, intending for it to be a cello sonata, but he never expanded the piece beyond its single-movement form. Eventually, conductor Edouard Colonne requested that Fauré orchestrate it, which he did later, fleshing out the ensemble with pairs of flutes, oboes, clarinets and bassoons, as well as four horns and strings.

The piece is in a three-part form commonly called “ABA form,” in which the musical material of the beginning (A) returns to close the piece after a contrasting (B) section. Here, the outer sections outline a somber, spun-out melody, displaying Fauré’s gift for colorful harmonies that perfectly complement the melancholy richness of the cello line. The orchestra, which acts solely as accompaniment in the opening A section, takes over melodically during the B section. The major key of the middle section and the beautiful singing lines of the orchestra provide a glimmer of light in this bittersweet elegy. Upon repeating the B theme, the cello plays the melody, and the section ends with an intense passage where the soloist and the ensemble trade forceful statements. The return of the A section begins with loud dynamics, but soon fades back into the somber mood of the opening. The second A section is not a direct recap of the opening, but instead combines the opening material with some of the rhythmic figures of the B section, while maintaining the nostalgic, mournful tone of the opening.

Osvaldo Golijov has developed a rich sonic language as a result of a lifetime of experience with diverse styles of music. Born in 1960 to Romanian Jewish parents, Golijov was exposed to the traditional klezmer and liturgical musics of his parents’ culture and faith. In addition, his experience growing up and going to public school in Argentina showed him the many musical styles of his family’s adopted country, including the tango. Once Golijov traveled abroad to continue his studies, the influences of other people and other styles became part of his musical personality. What is so wonderful about his musical language is that, rather than a pastiche of styles, it incorporates these inspirations into an expression that is wholly cohesive. It is also vibrant and alive, growing and changing as this (relatively young) composer does. Azul displays this cohesive musical language by drawing upon multiple influences, including Middle Eastern, Latin American and Central European traditions. This international music complements the eclectic work Yo-Yo Ma has done in recent years with the Silk Road Ensemble and his recordings of Brazilian music, tangos, bluegrass and more.

Golijov was commissioned by the Boston Symphony Orchestra to write Azul, and Yo-Yo Ma gave the work its premiere at Tanglewood. Golijov then created a second version of the piece with ten additional minutes. This version was premiered at Lincoln Center by cellist Alisa Weilerstein. The work requires a special percussionist and a “hyper-accordion,” which is an electronically altered and amplified accordion invented by Michael Ward-Bergeman, who will be playing it tonight. This twist on the traditional accordion provides something of a link to the sound of tango. The sound of the hyper-accordion lends an otherworldly mood to the music in the first section of Azul. Indeed, Golijov’s use of the title Azul (the Spanish word for “blue”) was inspired by the color of the night sky, and the composer was also influenced by “The Heights of Macchu Picchu” by Pablo Neruda.

The work is also grounded in the Baroque tradition. In a nod to the 18th-century concertino that served as the solo group in concerto grosso form, Azul calls for a special ensemble within an ensemble. Golijov’s version of the concertino includes the cello, solo percussion and hyper-accordion. Jeffrey Kahane describes Azul as requiring “super-human virtuosity” on the part of the cello and concertino group, and though the work features the cello prominently, Golijov did not conceive Azul as a solo concerto. Rather, the composer separates the orchestra into smaller groups that emerge and recede throughout the course of the piece.

Further associations with Baroque music remain obscured in the first movement, Paz Sulfurica (“Sulfuric Peace”), but become more explicit in the second movement, Silencio (“Silence”). Here, there are repeated phrases that work similarly to a chaconne, a Baroque technique involving the repetition of a harmonic pattern over which a composer would write melodic variations. Meanwhile, the cello evokes Couperin-esque melodies over delicate accompaniment. In the third movement, Transit, the cello plays a cadenza, accompanied by accordion and percussion, which then leads into a percussion cadenza. The fourth movement, Yrushalem (“Jerusalem” in Hebrew), seems to suggest a return to the themes of the first movement, but then veers off in another direction with new melodic material. Golijov’s tendency to mix cultural influences is apparent here, as he invokes his Jewish upbringing in the movement title and the interpretive marking “Noble, like prayer fragments” in the cello part. Golijov also includes two codas —ending passages with additional musical material—to conclude the work. The codas, entitled Pulsar and Shooting Stars, refer once again to Azul’s other-worldly, nocturnal inspiration. This is an extraordinary piece by one of the world’s greatest living composers. The energy and daring of this composition can only be fully realized by masters who appreciate its varied influences and its incredible power.

Ludwig van Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7 may be somewhat less omnipresent in popular culture than the Fifth or the Ninth, but it is a masterpiece nonetheless. Beethoven is known for his obsessive treatment of rhythm, and this work in particular overflows with rhythmic drive. Written in 1811, it premiered as part of a charity concert in 1813. The orchestra at the concert was made up of the luminaries of the day including Johann Hummel (keyboard) and Antonio Salieri (violin and keyboard). Beethoven conducted the symphony, and it was so well-received that the second movement was given an encore on the spot.

There are four movements in the piece, the first of which is preceded by a slow introduction. Once the Vivace section of the movement gets underway, the music absolutely dances. It is one of Beethoven’s liveliest first movements and displays the characteristic charm and wit along with the intensity that we have come to expect from Beethoven.

The second movement is a transcendent theme and variations based on a consistent rhythm that pervades the entire movement: long-short-short-long-long. Jeffrey Kahane, a student of ancient Greek, has theorized that this rhythmic foundation was inspired by the poetic rhythm of dactylic hexameter. This meter was commonly used in many of the Greek and Latin epic poems, including both Homer’s Odyssey and Virgil’s Aeneid. Beethoven’s favorite book was the Odyssey, and there is apparently an entry in Beethoven’s diary that reads, “dactylic hexameter.” Simply put, a poetic line in this meter is made up of six dactyls, with a dactyl itself consisting of three syllables, the first of which is long and the second and third short. The sixth unit in a line is often not a dactyl, but instead two stressed syllables. So the last two units, or “feet,” make up a longshort-short-long-long rhythm. Perhaps this work is Beethoven’s Odyssey in music.

The third movement of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony is a vivacious scherzo. The composer excelled at these scherzos, writing fun and energetic music with many contrasts in color and dynamics, although—like the second movement—it is tightly focused on a prominent rhythmic pattern. The trio—the second part of the form, usually in a more lyrical contrasting style—is the only part of this movement that features a different rhythm. The trio’s melody was taken from an Austrian folk song that Beethoven encountered on a summer trip to Teplitz. The final movement features more rollicking dance-like music. Its intensity is heightened by regal horn lines that soar above the orchestra’s rhythmic action. The thrills are balanced with moments of pure sweetness, as Beethoven brings this magnificent masterpiece to a superb and lively close.

– Christine Lee Gengaro, PhD

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