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A Tale of Two Commissions: Golijov, Mobtown Modern, and the BSO

June 16, 2011

Osvaldo Golijov

No, Emaneul Ax didn’t debut a piece by Argentine composer Osvaldo Golijov with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra June 3. The celebrated pianist occupied the second half of the BSO’s Friday night program and was billed the star of the evening–not the newly commissioned piece: Sidereus, which opened the evening. We were surprised a star such as Ax didn’t pack the Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, and then assumed some concertgoers ate dinner to avoid the new Sidereus and then catch Ax after the intermission.

The inspiration of Golijov’s Sidereus comes from the time when descriptions of the moon and stars moved from the domain of poets to science. Galileo ushered that in with his 1610 treatise Sidereus Nuncius, which offered readers observations of the moon as revealed through his telescope.

Golijov’s work, shimmering in texture and brighter by far, did surpass the minimalism of a different BSO co-commission from earlier this season, Philip Glass’ Icarus at the Edge of Time. Trumpeter Andy Balio gave Sidereus a real polish before the piece reduced down to an uninspired glacial drift. In no way did it fly from the shadows of the great celestially inspired music selected by Stanley Kubrick for 2001: A Space Odyssey– such as György Ligeti’s Atmospheres and Richard Strauss’ Also Sprach Zarathustra. Strange that composers and film scorers can find so much intoxication in choosing the muse of silent space as subject.

Golijov’s Sidereus is only an overture, so we hope the 35 orchestras (from top-tier to student) that pulled together as the Henry Fogel Commission Consortium to pay for the piece didn’t spend too dear. Something much grander could have been created to honor Fogel, the sometime leader of august bodies such as the New York Philharmonic, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, and former senior adviser to and president of the League of American Orchestras.

The question Golijov’s Sidereus raises is when does does a contemporary work shed its newness and enter the repertoire? Is it time that matters? Or as it was in Galileo’s day, a question of who your patron is, pure and simple? To its credit, Sidereus does the descriptive duty well enough that one does not need photographs displayed from the Hubble telescope or space station to envision the cosmos. If it is to be revived after a single debut season, though, don’t be surprised to see someone enlist some.

Another problem with commissions: who plays them? The challenge of satisfying 35 orchestras is a big one. Each has its own personality, sound, and audience. Some of the best works, especially concertos, come from having one performer in mind to champion the work.

For example, on June 1, Mobtown Modern treated Baltimore to Golijov’s Ayre, a song cycle created for celebrated soprano Dawn Upshaw to celebrate Carnegie’s new Zankel Hall. Local soprano Lara Bruckmann filled Upshaw’s shoes admirably, ranging in tone and mood. Mobtown’s Ayre succeeded even more brightly than the earlier Synchronicity, Mobtown Modern’s collaboration with the BSO, performance of Glass Pieces, although less were around to witness it. This performance should have been sold out. (One wonders why a mention didn’t make it into the BSO’s last minute Ax e-mail blast.) The lucky attendees were able to enjoy the cool oasis created in the Windup Space on a very hot night.

Here a klezmer tune popped out bold. Here the sweetest singing of the evening concentrates on Sephardic words describing a mother roasting–yes, roasting–her cherished son. Bruckmann voiced the child’s purity to perfection. Brian Sacawa mixed in tracks of beating wind, club beats, and rolling thunder. Marcia Kämper’s alto flute, Meng Su’s guitar, and Elizabeth Jaffe’s viola combined in many moments to transfigure the space, opening its black horizon to distant lands. Here we had more bang for the buck, more spell for the silver. The journey was not interstellar but trans-global, and magical all the way.

While personal contact or relation between composer and artists should never be necessary for new works, it does seem to help. So far, Mei-Ann Chen is the only conductor who worked personally with Golijov on Sidereus. And she happens to be one of Baltimore’s own–sort of. Alsop brought Chen on as assistant conductor, where she conducted once, in April 2008, with John Corigliano’s To Music. She gave Sidereus its debut with the Memphis Symphony and in New England. It would have been great to hear how the former BSO assistant conductor has grown.

The other trouble with a new commission is figuring how to fit it into a program. Chen conducted the piece with Barber, more Golijov, and Copland’s Appalachian Spring Suite–bold choices–for Siderius‘ debut. Alsop is much at home in the minimal wanderings Golijov offered in this piece, which made her transition to her other specialty–Brahms–more striking. The addition of Britten’s The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra made for a night packed with sharp contrasts. In the case of Britten, the layers of music and sectionals were as easy for ears to grasp as the world as seen in the colored layers of a Jello cup. And the musicians showed off with gusto and flourish.

Alsop led off the Brahms Piano Concerto No. 1 with a breathy yogic exhalation bearing down; the strings entered, and Ax listened, ready for his entrance. He delivered exactly what the audience paid for: Brahms with harmonics polished to seem almost understated. His reverence in the Adagio was shared in equal measure by Alsop’s baton. Together they brought a great, earnest close to a sprawling night of sound.

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