In this colorful and wide-ranging program, The Knights team up with the inimitable cellist Yo-Yo Ma for music that bursts with individual creativity and reaction to fresh insights. For the young Mendelssohn, immersion in the arts and culture of Italy inspired a new symphony. In Federico II, Giovanni Sollima takes inspiration from the 13th-century Holy Roman Emperor who paved the way for the advances of the Renaissance. In Osvaldo Golijov’s Azul (written for Yo-Yo Ma in 2006) the composer combines two perspectives, simultaneously observing the Earth from afar, as if from the heavens, and also plunging into the turbulent depths of the human and earthly experience.
SollimaFederico II Mendelssohn Symphony No. 4 in A Major, Op. 90, “Italian” GolijovAzul, for cello and orchestra
Yo-Yo Ma, cello
Cyro Baptista, percussion
Jamey Haddad, percussion
Michael Ward-Bergeman, hyper-accordion
The Knights are an orchestral collective, flexible in size and repertory, dedicated to transforming the concert experience. Engaging listeners and defying boundaries with programs that showcase the players’ roots in the classical tradition and passion for artistic discovery, The Knights have “become one of Brooklyn’s sterling cultural products… known far beyond the borough for their relaxed virtuosity and expansive repertory” (New Yorker).
The Knights’ 2015-16 season kicks off at Caramoor, a regular stop for the ensemble, with a performance featuring cello superstar Yo-Yo Ma. The group will be in residence at Brooklyn’s BRIC House, as part of a series of New York City residencies undertaken with support from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. On Gil Shaham’s 1930’s Violin Concertos, Vol. 2, to be released in February, The Knights join the master violinist on Prokofiev’s Second Violin Concerto. The group teams up again with Shaham for a North American tour with stops in Baltimore, Toronto, Chicago and Atlanta. Other season highlights include a new collaboration with French pianist Lise de la Salle and residencies at Dartmouth, Penn State and Washington D.C.’s Dumbarton Oaks.
Recent season highlights include The Knights’ debut at Carnegie Hall in the New York premiere of the Steven Stucky/Jeremy Denk opera The Classical Style; a U.S. tour with banjo virtuoso Béla Fleck; a European tour with soprano Dawn Upshaw, including the group’s debut at Vienna’s Musikverein; frequent festival appearances at Ravinia and Tanglewood; and seven years of free summer performances at Central Park’s Naumburg Orchestral Concerts and Bryant Park. In recent years The Knights have collaborated with Yo-Yo Ma, Itzhak Perlman, Dawn Upshaw, the Mark Morris Dance Group, Joshua Redman, Silk Road virtuoso Siamak Aghaei, and pipa virtuoso Wu Man. Recordings include 2015’s “instinctive and appealing” (The Times, UK) the ground beneath our feet on Warner Classics, featuring the ensemble’s first original group composition; an all-Beethoven disc on Sony Classical (their third project with the label); and 2012’s “smartly programmed” (NPR) A Second of Silence for Ancalagon.
The Knights evolved from late-night chamber music reading parties with friends at the home of violinist Colin Jacobsen and cellist Eric Jacobsen. The Jacobsen brothers, who are also founding members of the string quartet Brooklyn Rider, serve as artistic directors of The Knights, with Eric Jacobsen as conductor. In December 2012, the Jacobsens were selected from among the nation’s top visual, performing, media, and literary artists to receive a prestigious United States Artists Fellowship. The Knights’ roster boasts remarkably diverse talents, including composers, arrangers, singer-songwriters, and improvisers, who bring a range of cultural influences to the group, from jazz and klezmer to pop and indie rock music. The unique camaraderie within the group retains the intimacy and spontaneity of chamber music in performance.
Colin Jacobsen, Artistic Director and violin
As the Washington Post observes, violinist and composer Colin Jacobsen is “one of the most interesting figures on the classical music scene.” A founding member of two game-changing, audience-expanding ensembles – the string quartet Brooklyn Rider and orchestra The Knights – he is also a touring member of Yo-Yo Ma’s venerated Silk Road Project and an Avery Fisher Career Grant-winning violinist. Jacobsen’s work as a composer developed as a natural outgrowth of his chamber and orchestral collaborations. Jointly inspired by encounters with leading exponents of non-western traditions and by his own classical heritage, his most recent compositions for Brooklyn Rider include “Three Miniatures” – “vivacious, deftly drawn sketches” (New York Times) – which were written for the reopening of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Islamic art galleries. Jacobsen collaborated with Iran’s Siamak Aghaei to write a Persian folk-inflected composition, “Ascending Bird,” which he performed as soloist with the YouTube Symphony Orchestra at the Sydney Opera House, in a concert that was streamed live by millions of viewers worldwide. His work for dance and theater includes Chalk and Soot, a collaboration with Dance Heginbotham, and music for Compagnia de’ Colombari’s theatrical production of Walt Whitman’s Song of Myself.
Eric Jacobsen, Artistic Director and conductor
Hailed by the New York Times as “an interpretive dynamo,” conductor and cellist Eric Jacobsen has built a reputation for engaging audiences with innovative and collaborative projects. Jacobsen is the founder and Artistic Director The Knights and a founding member of the genre-defying string quartet Brooklyn Rider. As conductor of The Knights, Jacobsen has led the “consistently inventive, infectiously engaged indie ensemble” (New York Times) at New York venues ranging from Carnegie Hall to Central Park, and at renowned international halls such as the Vienna Musikverein and Cologne Philharmonie. In the 2015-16 season, Jacobsen celebrates his inaugural season as Music Director of the Orlando Philharmonic and his second season as both Music Director of the Greater Bridgeport Symphony and Artistic Partner with the Northwest Sinfonietta. Also in demand as a guest conductor, Jacobsen has recently led the Camerata Bern, the Detroit Symphony, the Alabama Symphony, ProMusica Chamber Orchestra, Deutsche Philharmonie Merck, and Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road Ensemble.
Yo-Yo Ma’s multi-faceted career is testament to his continual search for new ways to communicate with audiences, and to his personal desire for artistic growth and renewal. Whether performing new or familiar works from the cello repertoire, coming together with colleagues for chamber music or exploring cultures and musical forms outside the Western classical tradition, Mr. Ma strives to find connections that stimulate the imagination.
Yo-Yo Ma maintains a balance between his engagements as soloist with orchestras throughout the world and his recital and chamber music activities. He draws inspiration from a wide circle of collaborators, creating programs with such artists as Emanuel Ax, Daniel Barenboim, Christoph Eschenbach, Kayhan Kalhor, Ton Koopman, Yu Long, Bobby McFerrin, Edgar Meyer, Mark Morris, Riccardo Muti, Mark O’Connor, Cristina Pato, Kathryn Stott, Chris Thile, Michael Tilson Thomas, Wu Man, Wu Tong, Damian Woetzel, and David Zinman. Each of these collaborations is fueled by the artists’ interactions, often extending the boundaries of a particular genre. One of Mr. Ma’s goals is the exploration of music as a means of communication and as a vehicle for the migration of ideas across a range of cultures throughout the world. To that end, he has taken time to immerse himself in subjects as diverse as native Chinese music with its distinctive instruments and the music of the Kalahari bush people in Africa.
Expanding upon this interest, in 1998, Mr. Ma established Silkroad, a nonprofit organization that seeks to create meaningful change at the intersections of the arts, education, and business. Under his artistic direction, Silkroad presents performances by the acclaimed Silk Road Ensemble and develops new music, cultural partnerships, education programs, and cross-disciplinary collaborations. Silkroad’s ongoing affiliation with Harvard University has made it possible to develop programs such as the Arts and Passion-Driven Learning Institute for educators and teaching artists, held in collaboration with the Harvard Graduate School of Education, and a new Cultural Entrepreneurship initiative in partnership with Harvard Business School. More than 80 new musical and multimedia works have been commissioned for the Silk Road Ensemble from composers and arrangers around the world. Through his work with Silkroad, as throughout his career, Yo-Yo Ma seeks to expand the cello repertoire, frequently performing lesser known music of the 20th century and commissions of new concertos and recital pieces. He has premiered works by a diverse group of composers, among them Stephen Albert, Elliott Carter, Chen Yi, Richard Danielpour, Osvaldo Golijov, John Harbison, Leon Kirchner, Peter Lieberson, Zhao Lin, Christopher Rouse, Giovanni Sollima, Bright Sheng, Tan Dun, John Williams, and Dmitri Yanov-Yanovsky.
As the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s Judson and Joyce Green Creative Consultant, Mr. Ma is partnering with Maestro Riccardo Muti to provide collaborative musical leadership and guidance on innovative program development for The Negaunee Music Institute of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, and for Chicago Symphony artistic initiatives. Ma’s work focuses on the transformative power music can have in individuals’ lives, and on increasing the number and variety of opportunities audiences have to experience music in their communities. Mr. Ma and the Institute have created the Citizen Musician Initiative (www.citizenmusician.org), a movement that calls on all musicians, music lovers, music teachers, and institutions to use the art form to bridge gulfs between people and to create and inspire a sense of community.
Yo-Yo Ma is strongly committed to educational programs that not only bring young audiences into contact with music but also allow them to participate in its creation. While touring, he takes time whenever possible to conduct master classes as well as more informal programs for students – musicians and non-musicians alike. At the same time, he continues to develop new concert programs for family audiences, for instance helping to inaugurate the family series at Carnegie Hall. In each of these undertakings, he works to connect music to students’ daily surroundings and activities with the goal of making music and creativity a vital part of children’s lives from an early age. He has also reached young audiences through appearances on Arthur, Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood and Sesame Street.
Mr. Ma’s discography of over 90 albums (including 18 Grammy Award winners) reflects his wide-ranging interests. He has made several successful recordings that defy categorization, among them Hush with Bobby McFerrin, Appalachia Waltz and Appalachian Journey with Mark O’Connor and Edgar Meyer, and two Grammy-winning tributes to the music of Brazil, Obrigado Brazil and Obrigado Brazil – Live in Concert. Mr. Ma’s recent recordings include Mendelssohn Trios with Emanuel Ax and Itzhak Perlman; The Goat Rodeo Sessions, with Edgar Meyer, Chris Thile and Stuart Duncan, which received the 2013 Grammy for Best Folk Album; and A Playlist Without Borders, recorded with the Silk Road Ensemble, which was released in September 2013. Across this full range of releases, Mr. Ma remains one of the best-selling recording artists in the classical field. All of his recent albums have quickly entered the Billboard chart of classical best sellers, remaining in the Top 15 for extended periods, often with as many as four titles simultaneously on the list. In fall 2009, Sony Classical released a box set of over 90 albums to commemorate Mr. Ma’s 30 years as a Sony recording artist.
Yo-Yo Ma was born in 1955 to Chinese parents living in Paris. He began to study the cello with his father at age four and soon came with his family to New York, where he spent most of his formative years. Later, his principal teacher was Leonard Rose at the Juilliard School. He sought out a traditional liberal arts education to expand upon his conservatory training, graduating from Harvard University in 1976. He has received numerous awards, including the Avery Fisher Prize (1978), the Glenn Gould Prize (1999), the National Medal of the Arts (2001), the Dan David Prize (2006), the Leonie Sonning Music Prize (2006), the World Economic Forum’s Crystal Award (2008), the Presidential Medal of Freedom (2010), the Polar Music Prize (2012) and the Vilcek Prize in Contemporary Music (2013). In 2011, Mr. Ma was recognized as a Kennedy Center Honoree. Appointed a CultureConnect Ambassador by the United States Department of State in 2002, Mr. Ma has met with, trained, and mentored thousands of students worldwide in countries including Lithuania, Korea, Lebanon, Azerbaijan, and China. Mr. Ma serves as a UN Messenger of Peace and as a member of the President’s Committee on the Arts & the Humanities. He has performed for eight American presidents, most recently at the invitation of President Obama on the occasion of the 56th Inaugural Ceremony.
Mr. Ma and his wife have two children. He plays two instruments, a 1733 Montagnana cello from Venice and the 1712 Davidoff Stradivarius.
Since arriving in the U.S. from his native Brazil, percussionist, composer, and bandleader Cyro Baptista has emerged as one of the premier percussionists in the world, bringing his unique charm and intense rhythmic drive to countless stages, performing on numerous Grammy-winning recordings, and collaborating with myriad luminaries such as Paul Simon, Herbie Hancock, John Zorn, Sting, Paula Robison, and many others.
Besides their continuing collaboration on Golijov’s Azul, Yo-Yo and Cyro have recorded and toured two Grammy-winning tributes to the music of Brazil: Obrigado Brazil and Obrigado Brazil – Live in Concert. Described by Thom Jurek of All Music as “simply one of the most limitless musicians we have,” Baptista’s many honors include DownBeat Critics Poll Percussionist of the Year in 2013 and 2011, Jazz Journalists Association Percussionist of the Year in 2007 and 2010, Drum Magazine Percussionist of the Year in 2003 and 2004, and US Artists Walker Fellow in 2009/10.
Baptista leads four different ensembles. He has released ten albums and tours continuously throughout the world. He conducts master classes at major musical institutions, such as The Juilliard School, Berklee College of Music, Mannes College of Music, The New School, New World Symphony Orchestra, Kimmel Center Jazz Camp, and K-12 schools across the country. Cyro Baptista has a great interest in education and spreading his knowledge, especially to underserved factions of society through his “Sound of Community” initiative.
Born in Cleveland Ohio, fresh off a U.S. tour performing in the bands of Sting and Paul Simon, percussionist/drummer Jamey Haddad holds a unique position in the world of jazz and contemporary music. Haddad’s musical voice transcends styles and trends, and the universal quality of his playing has attracted many international collaborations. Regarded as one of the foremost world music and jazz percussionists, Haddad is a professor at The Oberlin Conservatory and the Cleveland institute of Music and previously for 18 years at Boston’s Berklee School of Music.
In 2012 Haddad was voted the top world percussionist in DRUM Magazine and one of the top four world-percussionists by the most largely read percussion periodical Modern Drummer (July 2007).
Mr. Haddad collaborates regularly with Paul Simon, Simon and Garfunkel, Osvaldo Golijov, Yo-Yo Ma, Dawn Upshaw, Esperanza Spalding, Danilo Perez, Joe Lovano, Elliot Goldenthal, Brazil’s Assad Brothers, Simon Shaheen, The Paul Winter Consort, Nancy Wilson, and Dave Liebman.
Michael Ward-Bergeman is a passionate performer, songwriter, and composer. His sensitive and creative approach to music making has led to performances and collaborations with world-class musicians and composers from across a wide range of genres. Michael aims to remain faithful to the spirit that unites many of the world’s richest music traditions while continuing to develop his own unique voice.
Ward-Bergeman started his musical training on piano and violin, but it was his devotion to the accordion and music technology that led him to create a 21st-century version of the instrument he dubbed the hyper-accordion. He is currently designing a reimagined acoustic “accordion.” The air is pumped from a pair of bellowshoes through a keyed airbox. Whistles, reeds in gourd resonators, bells, and other objects driven by the air are set into motion and sound by the directed “wind” exiting tubes connected to the airbox. Everything hangs from the player’s body, as if perched on the branches of a walking tree. With parts manufactured for him around the globe, the instrument is being born in his hometown of New Orleans, LA.
About the Music
Giovanni Sollima /(1962 – )/ Federico II
The evening’s journey begins in Italy, with Giovanni Sollima’s Federico II (in its orchestral version), a movement that is part of a larger piece called Viaggio In Italia, which some Caramoor audience members may recognize from the cello quintet version as played by Edward Arron & Friends. Sollima, a living virtuoso cellist and composer in the long tradition of Italian virtuoso string instrumentalist/composers such as Vivaldi, Corelli, and Boccherini, traverses what he calls the “jurassic of the cello” (meaning the baroque era) to the “metal,” as he draws from rock, jazz and folk idioms from his native Sicily in his music. Federico II was known as the enlightened and shrewd ruler of the Holy Roman Empire from 1220 till his death in 1250. He was a great supporter of the science and the arts, allowed for a far greater integration of ethnicities in his kingdom than was common practice at the time in Europe, and is widely credited with helping to pave the way for the intellectual advances of the Renaissance. Sollima pays tribute to him in this rhythmically intoxicating piece.
With the view from above gained through works like the ones on today’s program, we start to see western classical music not as an isolated, airtight set of stylistic concerns, but very much a part of the world and its shared heritage. I leave you with a quote from another fortunate voyager who has left our atmosphere and returned, Astronaut Loren Acton:
“Looking outward to the blackness of space, sprinkled with the glory of a universe of lights, I saw majesty – but no welcome. Below was a welcoming planet. There, contained in the thin, moving, incredibly fragile shell of the biosphere is everything that is dear to you, all the human drama and comedy. That’s where life is; that’s where all the good stuff is.”
– Colin Jacobsen
Felix Mendelssohn / (1809 – 1847) / Symphony No. 4 in A Major, Op. 90, “Italian” Allegro vivace / Andante con moto / Con moto moderato / Saltarello. Presto
From a young age, Felix felt the burden of familial expectation. Grandson of a famous Jewish philosopher, Moses Mendelssohn, his parents converted him to Protestantism in secret, along with his sister Fanny, even before they had converted themselves. They added “Bartholdy” to their name, hoping to give their incredibly talented children every opportunity to succeed in German society. Felix and Fanny grew up in a highly cultured and hardworking environment. When their mother Lea saw Felix idle as a ten-year-old she was overheard nagging him, “Felix, doest thou nothing?” Because of the endemic sexism of the time, Fanny wasn’t encouraged to the same degree as Felix to pursue a musical career, but from early on she was his closest confidant and he trusted her opinion more than anyone else’s. In fact, he published some of her lieder as his own (an area of composition where Fanny was much stronger than Felix), so some of her work could get out into the world. Felix was carrying the musical banner for both of them, not just himself. He faced subtle forms of anti-Semitism throughout his youth, even from his own teacher, Carl Friederich Zelter (1758-1832), who nevertheless didn’t let his prejudices prevent himself from supporting his student. At the age of eleven Felix was compared favorably to Mozart by Goethe (who had first heard Mozart at the age of seven) with his ability at the piano, improvisation, and composition – not to mention violin playing and painting! At 16 he wrote two of the greatest pieces of instrumental repertoire of all time: the exhilarating String Octet, Op. 20 and one of the most famous programmatic pieces in the canon, A Midsummer Night’s Dream Overture.
His next great project was the revival of Johann Sebastian Bach’s St. Matthew Passion. Felix had grown up around the music of Bach and his interest in this massive work was sparked by his grandmother’s gift of a copy of the manuscript to Zelter. Zelter had been rehearsing bits and pieces of the work, but it took the 18-year-old Felix to bring back the most German of Christian music to Berlin where he put on the first public performance of this great masterpiece in 100 years.
So yeah, no pressure to become the next great German composer.
No wonder he couldn’t wait to travel. Everyone agreed that Mendelssohn should go on a Grand Tour to make his name across Europe. He got out of Berlin on his own for three years and spent his twenty-first birthday in Italy. You can just picture the handsome young genius, finally free of stuffy Berlin society, taken by gondola from what was then Austrian-controlled territory across the Venetian Lagoon at dusk. Felix had visited London, Munich, Paris, and Vienna before coming to Italy, and he was mostly disappointed by the quality of musicianship in the country at the time. But there’s no question he enjoyed everything else it had to offer. When he settled in Rome for a time he wrote home:
“Picture a small, two-windowed house on the Spanish Steps. In my room on the first floor there’s a good Viennese piano…When in the morning I come into this room and the sun sparkles brightly on my breakfast, I feel wonderful. After breakfast I set to work, I play and sing and compose until midday. After that the whole immeasurable Rome lies before me like some exercise in enjoyment.”
Felix spent a wonderful few months in Rome learning the monophonic music of the Vatican, hanging with a young Hector Berlioz, taking in the ruins, the art, the food – being a good tourist. After having shown off his talents in London and the other musical centers of Europe, he was finally able to relax in Italy. He was apparently at his laziest in Naples, where he took time to complete most of the Italian Symphony.
You can feel freedom burst out of the first movement’s (“Allegro vivace”) joyous first theme. The entire string section, like a thousand guitars, pluck a fortissimo pizzicato chord that sends us flying along with the pulsating winds. Used to such great effect in the movie Breaking Away (1979), this melody invokes the wanderlust of adolescence and the release of escaping the stifling town where you grew up.
The second movement (“Andante con moto”) is inspired by a procession of monks in Naples, although the musical influence clearly comes from the sacred renaissance music of Palestrina and others he heard in Rome.
The third movement is marked “Con moto moderato” (although when Mendelssohn reworked it he labeled it a “Minuet”), and is perhaps the least “Italian” sounding of the piece; it’s more of a German pastoral scene, with a sweet tumbling theme in the violins and violas and an exquisite “Trio” section for the winds and brass. Here Mendelssohn lulls us into a hazy afternoon reverie in order to shock us with the last movement; at the end of the third movement he notates “attaca subito il Saltarello” (“suddenly and immediately begin the Saltarello”).
The last movement (“Saltarello”) gets its title from a dance Mendelssohn saw performed in Rome, which formed the earliest inspiration for the work. He reported witnessing a friend’s daughter get up and dance the Saltarello with a tambourine, and you can hear the leaping (from the Italian “saltare”) rhythm, with something like a tambourine in the mix as well. Personally, I hear something else typically Italian in this movement: La Vendetta. There’s an element of passionate vengeance here, the excitement of a headlong rush to exact revenge on those who have wronged you. It’s a thrilling conclusion to an otherwise sunny and sparkly symphony.
Perfectionist that he was, Mendelssohn couldn’t finish the symphony when he got home. An invitation from London was enough to push him to prepare it for performance, and it received its premiere in Hanover Square on March 13, 1833. Mendelssohn himself conducted the premiere, which followed a rather new fashion at the time – London audiences were accustomed to seeing the concertmaster share leadership responsibilities with someone seated at a keyboard, often the composer. Mendelssohn had only used a baton for the first time in public a few years earlier, usually preferring to modestly direct from the piano or the first desk of the violas. The “Italian” was an immediate sensation, although Mendelssohn himself was never satisfied with it. He worked continuously on the symphony throughout his entire life, never allowing it to be published. It finally appeared in print in 1851, four years after his death. The symphony has gone on to become one of the most popular symphonies of all time, and continues to fill hearts and minds with the mad dash into the unknown, the irrepressible joy of traveling to new place for the first time. For Mendelssohn, this newly discovered land was Italy, where young people have been visiting for centuries, having their breath taken away by the sights and sounds. A good performance should give you a whiff of that particular Italian mix of sea air, olive groves, cigarette smoke, chianti, cologne, gasoline, lemons, oranges, Parmigiano, and nostalgia.
“My first view – a panorama of brilliant deep blue ocean, shot with shades of green and gray and white – was of atolls and clouds. Close to the window I could see that this Pacific scene in motion was rimmed by the great curved limn of the Earth. It had a thin halo of blue held close, and beyond, black space. I held my breath, but something was missing – I felt strangely unfulfilled. Here was a tremendous visual spectacle, but viewed in silence. There was no grand musical accompaniment; no triumphant, inspired sonata or symphony. Each one of us must write the music of this sphere for ourselves…”
These were astronaut Charles Walker’s thoughts upon seeing our home planet from above. Walker’s words highlight one of the crucial questions of our time: how do we reconcile this view from above with our daily struggle down on the surface? On today’s program, artists and composers deal musically with the idea of stepping outside of the world one knows, gaining inspiration and perspective from that encounter, and uncovering new ideas and forms from that experience.
It would seem that Yo-Yo Ma and Osvaldo Golijov, both featured on tonight’s program, make it their business to deal with that issue musically every day. Yo-Yo has been a friend and mentor to myself and many other members of The Knights for a number of years. Some things to strive for, gleaned from his probing mind:
-Details matter, but only in the service of a larger vision for a piece of music.
-It’s not enough to have gotten inside a piece of music, thinking you understand its message, if that message isn’t communicated from its first to its very last breath to another human being.
-Don’t bother to place bow on string, air in wind instrument, mallet on drum if you can’t imagine and hear the sound in your head first.
This last idea holds a great deal of latent power, transferable to a broad way of looking at the world. Yo-Yo will often talk about how the arts are supposed to encourage the capacity for imagination and that imaginative aptitude is an essential quality whether one is an artist, or a person in business or politics. If we collectively and individually don’t have the capacity to imagine a more peaceful, verdant, and just world, how can we even begin to address the issues and challenges that we face? Here we find a compelling argument for the urgency of enshrining arts in schools as a core value, and the root of Yo-Yo’s important advocacy work in that direction. But I digress …
One of the things that neuroscience has taught us about music is that, similar to the effects of birdsong on other birds, it can alter the state of mind for both performer and audience. In the forest, birds and other animals tend to find their own bandwidth for their calls. If two calls are too similar, instinct will guide animals to find a new “tune” or at least a different intonation. Osvaldo Golijov is one of the composers of our time who has managed to find his own voice, not through tuning out the world, but through filtering its many layered complexity through his own unique lens.
Born in La Plata, Argentina to Eastern European Jewish immigrants, Osvaldo lived and studied in Israel for a number of years before settling in the States in 1986. He is a musical omnivore whose music has been influenced variously by tango, klezmer, gypsy, and Middle Eastern musical traditions, as well as the long history of western music. Many of his orchestral pieces expand the definition of an orchestra. In his Pasion segun San Marcos, a Latin American depiction of the Christian Passion which The Knights were fortunate to perform in Spain several years ago, he incorporates a salsa band and capoeira dancer into the ensemble. In Azul, Osvaldo looks to the Baroque era for musical forms (the passacaglia and chaconne) and for an expanded orchestra that includes a “21st-century continuo team” (Golijov’s nomenclature) comprised of the versatile hyper-accordion – invented and played by Michael Ward-Bergman – and a colorful assortment of percussion, including instruments such as a bottle shaker, waterphone, wind whistle, and “goat’s nail” (goat hoof rattle). Similar to a Baroque continuo team, the players are given room to improvise within the musical structure.
Azul, written for and premiered by Yo-Yo Ma, doesn’t have an exact program or storyline, but it does deal with multiple sources of inspiration and perspectives, starting with this poem by Pablo Neruda:
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
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.
-excerpt from The Heights of Macchu Picchu (translated by Nathaniel Tran)
The title Azul partly refers to Osvaldo’s nostalgia for his time as a Fellow at Tanglewood, listening to music while lying in the grass and gazing at the sky at dusk. But it also describes an experience of cognitive dissonance that he tries to reconcile, or at least lay out side by side in his piece: that of going to the Hayden Planetarium in New York with his son, and seeing the beautiful blue earth, peaceful and quiet from above, in 2000 – during the renewed outbreak of violence in Israel, widely referred to as the 2nd Intifada.
The first section, “Paz Sulfurica” (“sulphuric peace”) is the part perhaps most connected to Neruda’s poem, and to nature. Here the cello soars skyward in tandem with the hyper-accordion and percussionists as the orchestra lays down the earthy foundation. In “Silencio,” we get to experience a slow, searching, ecstatic state of mind most evocative of that deep-sky Azul that the title references. The third section, “Transit,” is a cadenza that feels as if forgotten strands of Bach’s cello suites were plucked from the air and threaded together with the colorful multi-cultural instruments and sounds of the continuo team. Perhaps the emotional center of the piece is the reflective “Yrushalem,” in which the opening material is reprised and extended. Here Osvaldo is drawing from an earlier work, Tenebrae, which was his response to that “renewed wave of violence”” witnessed on a trip to Israel in 2000. This music ascends and explodes into the firmament with the double-coda of “Pulsars” and “Shooting Stars.”