A couple of years ago, a high-ranking local impresario opined that the Argentinean composer Osvaldo Golijov, after a promising career start, had gone commercial and sold out to mere popular taste.
That’s a matter of opinion, of course. Golijov’s most recent works of any length have been film scores, and although only snobs would denigrate that particular genre, the composer hasn’t produced anything as ambitious as “La Pasión según San Marcos” or Ainadamar in the past four or five years.
His popular 2004 song cycle, “Ayre,” presented last week by the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival, is hard to classify except as a skillful mingling of genres: classical, pop, ethnic. Composed for soprano and an eclectic ensemble, the work mostly uses a mixture of Jewish, Arabic and Christian texts, most of them derived from the poetry and music of southern Spain. (Think Jordi Savall’s Hespèrion XX recordings.) Most are medieval in origin. I use all these “mosts” because the most original of Golijov’s settings is of the recently deceased, politically involved Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish’s poem, “Be a String, Water, to My Guitar.” Many “Ayre” texts deal with sorrow, exile and loss. Darwish’s refrain, “Conquerers come, conquerers go,” places the cycle in a poignant contemporary context, especially from a Jewish composer.
Dawn Upshaw, this season’s SFCMF artist in residence and the work’s soloist, has been associated with “Ayre” from its beginning. She’s long been a champion of new compositions, and vocal challenges abound in “Ayre,” with the singer required to sing, mutter, intone and speak. Upshaw’s glowing middle range was more than up to the task. Golijov’s score is notable also for his sophisticated, iridescent instrumentation, often electronically augmented. The concert thrilled its audience at St. Francis Auditorium. Frankly, I’d rather have heard it at Bleecker Street’s (le) poisson rouge.
Remember last year’s Jeremy Denk recital, his lucid commentary upon and performance of the Ives “Concord Sonata”? The man was back this season with what he proclaimed a “perverse” program. Denk opened with Bach’s F-sharp Minor Toccata, a many-sectioned, many-key-signatured touch-piece with a final fugue concluding in F-sharp Major. This gave Denk perverse permission to proceed without pause into the first of the six Ligeti Piano Études, Book One (1985), wittily entitled “Désordre,” also in Bach’s key and also a demanding touch-piece.
Like the Chopin études, each of Ligeti’s focuses on a single technical issue: diatonal versus pentatonal pitch fields; blocked-out, unsounded notes; daunting polyrhythms. Also like Chopin, each has a distinct musical personality requiring enormous technical skills. Denk makes nothing of Ligeti’s superhuman difficulties. Bringing a surprising (perhaps perverse?) conclusion to the program, Denk’s reading of the Beethoven Sonata No. 32, Op. 111, the composer’s last, was luminous, fluent, probing.
The SFCMF’s Aug. 3 noon concert featured six artists, all borrowed from the Santa Fe Opera’s orchestra, in a swell, summery program for piano and winds definitely ranking among those “sounds and sweet airs that give delight and hurt not” that Caliban brags about. The Mozart Quintet for Piano and Winds, K. 452, received a sterling performance from the SFO’s chief conductor, Frédéric Chaslin, piano, plus Robert Ingliss, oboe; Todd Levy, clarinet; Theodore Soluri, bassoon; and Gabrielle Finck, horn.
With the composer at the piano, Chaslin’s exuberant “Gypsy Dance” from his 2010 opera, Wuthering Heights, recalled every many-splendored Hungarian rhapsody you’ve ever heard. Flutist Bart Feller joined the ensemble for Poulenc’s hyper-Gallic Sextet for Piano and Winds, in a fearless, effervescent, chic reading that sent all of us smiling into the sunshine.