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Osvaldo Golijov in London

Americans Fer:

Justin Davidson, Alex Ross, Allan Kozinn, Mark Swed, Steve Smith, Richard Dyer (with some reservations), T. J. Medrek, et al. (excerpts compiled on Golijov's Web site)

Charles T. Downey, Summer Opera: Ainadamar in Santa Fe (Ionarts, August 2, 2005)

Jens F. Laurson [currently residing in America], Now That's Cross-Over: Ayre & You've Stolen My Heart (Ionarts, February 7, 2006)

Anthony Tommasini, A Most Familiar Tale, Told in a New Mix of Sounds (New York Times, February 21, 2006)


Charles T. Downey, Stale Ayre (Ionarts, December 6, 2005)
I have reacted both positively and negatively to the music of Osvaldo Golijov, and other American critics (Alex Ross, Steve Smith, Anastasia Tsioulcas, and others) have largely not agreed with my negative reaction. In that context, the critical reaction in the British press to recent concerts of Golijov's music at the Barbican in London is of interest. Anna Picard's summary review (La Pasión según San Marcos, Barbican, London, March 5), in The Independent, of Golijov's Pasión at the Barbican in London is a fascinating and very brief read:
Little of Osvaldo Golijov's music has been heard in Britain. [...] Yet, in America, Golijov has been hailed as the future of classical music. This is a title no young composer should have to bear. Moreover, the London premiere of La Pasión según San Marcos - given by the redoubtable Schola Cantorum de Carácas under Maria Guinand - revealed a curiously old-fashioned approach. Unlike John Adams, whose oratorio El Niño conjures its Central American setting with scant reference to folk, Golijov offers an unassimilated collage of indigenous and classical forms: not fusing them so much as presenting them as a musical mezze.
Another review by Geoffrey Norris (Sparks of life fail to illuminate a labyrinth of interminable meandering, February 2) for The Telegraph was similar in tone:
Osvaldo Golijov, to borrow Rossini's comment on Wagner, has lovely moments but wretched quarters of an hour. An Argentine-born composer, currently a wow in America, Golijov evidently does not subscribe to the less-is-more school of composition. When this evening of his music was approaching 10pm, even the surtitles appeared to give up the ghost. Dawn Upshaw was singing a lengthy, serpentine song, and it was only when the lights came up in the darkened auditorium that you could glean from the programme that it had been about Ariadne and the labyrinth. But the thread had been lost long before. [...]

Ayre, a vocal cycle sung by Upshaw with the Andalucian Dogs ensemble, summarised Golijov's derivative penchant. Here the terms of reference reflected the mix of Jewish, Christian and Arab cultures in the southern Spanish region whence the songs originated, sometimes with piquant orchestration and tricksy amplification. But again, the impact was etiolated by Golijov's tendency to meander. One song bore an uncanny resemblance to Lulu's 1960s hit with the words "You make me wanna shout" - a sentiment that, come the end of this concert, I was all too ready to echo.
Also, on the question of the crossover effect on classical music, these sentences from an article (Karaoke crooners hijack classical music, March 1) by Rupert Christiansen for The Telegraph:
One telling measure of this is the way that the composition of classical music has now become obsessively allusive to other music. Be it hip hop or birdsong, chart hits or Wagnerian leitmotivs, composers can't stop looking over their shoulders and filling their scores with references to other parts of the musical planet - an egregious example being the Argentinian Osvaldo Golijov, currently hailed as the saviour of classical music, whose song-cycle Ayre combines elements of everything from Sephardic chant to laptop groove in what the New York Times called "an inspired salmagundi". I would prefer the phrase "adventitious tosh", but the point is that Golijov has no real voice of his own. Like so many in the field, he functions as an eclectic imitator rather than an original composer.
Even in The Guardian, the British reaction was negative, as in the article (Osvaldo Golijov programme, February 3) by Andrew Clements, cited with satisfied agreement by A. C. Douglas last month. Robert van Leer's defense of the Golijov program (The Guardian, February 15) did not really even contest Clements's charges. Now, good old anti-Americanism on the part of our British friends may account for some of this. Nevertheless, I find this British perspective rather interesting. What makes the difference between American and British critical reaction to the music of Osvaldo Golijov? Tim Rutherford-Johnson, blogging at The Rambler, wrote (Osvaldo Golijov Reaches London, February 7) about the drubbing Golijov received in the British press with a particularly salient comparison:
For a few months now I've harboured a suspicion that Osvaldo Golijov is to the 2000s what Krzysztof Penderecki was to the 1960s. Both composers rapidly developed a worldwide, word-of-mouth enthusiasm for their music, which was seen by some as a new hope for a contemporary music that speaks to the heart as much as the head. That enthusiasm grew immensely with the composition of a Passion by each composer: Passio et mors Domini nostri Iesu Christi secundam Lucam (1967) by Penderecki, and La Pasión Según San Marcos (2000) by Golijov. By the time each composer's music reached the UK, an almost unsustainably high level of expectation had been set up; what's more, to borrow some reception theory, a particularly focussed horizon of expectation now existed, which the work in performance was unlikely to be able to meet.
Tim also linked to a review (Golijov Evening, February 2) by Hilary Finch for the London Times, who called Ayre "disappointingly weak" and "little more than a collage of echoes and allusions." The review concludes, "But these were second-hand goods. To hear Upshaw putting on a set of vocal disguises in a mere mimicry of some of the most powerful and ancient musics of mankind was at best tedious, at worst risible." Tim's follow-up post (Golijov-Watch, UK Edition, March 1) quotes most of the reviews I have quoted here.


Anonymous said...

I have no comment on Golijov's music, which I've managed to avoid up to this point, but man! I love the way the London critics write. I even had to scramble for the Oxford to find out what "adventitious" meant. The only comparable American critic is Martin Bernheimer, much missed by me and my friends here in Los Angeles, by the opera and Philharmonic management, not so much.

Now, good old anti-Americanism on the part of our British friends may account for some of this

How? Bashing the latest critical darling from America? I've read all the links you provided and the main reaction that I got is that they are not at all impressed with the "multicultural" aspect of his music at all, whereas that's a huge selling point here and why he's possibly given some slack that he otherwise wouldn't receive.

By the time each composer's music reached the UK, an almost unsustainably high level of expectation had been set up; what's more, to borrow some reception theory, a particularly focussed horizon of expectation now existed, which the work in performance was unlikely to be able to meet.

The British critics did this with Thomas Ades, praising him as the saviour of British composition when he first hit the scene and then turning on him a few years later. So it goes.....

Charles T. Downey said...

Henry, great comments, as always. As for the possible anti-American motivation behind some of the criticism, I noted it only because almost all of the critics made a point that Golijov was the latest rage in the United States. I said "may account" because, I agree, there is nothing overtly anti-American in any of the reviews.

I agree about the quality of British music criticism, too. It was so refreshing to read those reviews, not only for the excellent writing but for the tough-mindedness.