OSVALDO GOLIJOV (born in 1960 in La Plata, Argentina)
Azul (Blue) (2006; rev. 2007)
The Cleveland Plain Dealer called Azul “something undeniably cool, something that appeals to heart, brain and even body alike.” Commissioned by the Boston Symphony Orchestra, the piece was premiered by Yo-Yo Ma, for whom it was composed, at Tanglewood in August 2006. Subsequently, Golijov decided to expand the work into four sections (played without pause) for performance by cellist Alisa Weilerstein. Golijov didn’t set out to write a virtuosic cello concerto; rather, he wanted to “evoke the majesty of certain Baroque adagios,” and also their sense of spaciousness, as he felt it in Baroque composer François Couperin. But look for the way he updated the concerto grosso genre, in which a smaller group of instruments (here cello, hyper-accordion — an amplified accordion that can alter sounds as it is being played — and percussion) is pitted against the rest of the orchestra. He likewise drew inspiration from the blue of the night sky and the great Chilean poet Pablo Neruda’s The Heights of Machu Picchu. The sense of space and the feeling of “blue” are certainly undeniable to anyone who has visited that mystical place in Peru. Beginning with the soloist spinning out a haunting melody that blends the composer’s Middle Eastern and Latin American influences, the music is powerful, increasing and decreasing in intensity, with an array of percussion instruments evoking sounds of animals and birds. The titles of the sections give a flavor of the images that the music conjures: “Paz sulfúrica” — as if reaching into the bowels of the earth — is hauntingly enhanced by the sound of the hyper-accordion; “Silencio” harking back to the Baroque adagios already mentioned; “Transit,” in which the cello and then the percussionist undertake lengthy cadenzas; and “Yrushalem,” marked “Noble, like prayer fragments,” in which the composer references Couperin. The work ends with two codas, marked “Pulsar” and “Shooting Stars.” Golijov says he “wanted to write a piece that could be listened to from different perspectives … music that would sound as an orbiting spaceship that never touches the ground.” As Azul approaches its final minutes, the music winds down, with sounds that are at once ethereal and plaintive, fading to a silence that is otherworldly and completely satisfying after such a sonic journey.