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Osvaldo Golijov, Ainadamar, Dawn Upshaw, Atlanta Symphony, Robert Spano (released on May 9, 2006)
Although I never attended an actual performance, I sat in on a rehearsal in the final week before the premiere of Osvaldo Golijov's one-act opera Ainadamar at Santa Fe Opera two seasons ago. I have expressed some reservations about Golijov's music and noted that reaction to his brand of crossover sound is quite different outside the United States (and there have been American critics less than enchanted by the use of Latin American rhythms and instruments in crossover music). Still, I found the score of Golijov's opera on the death of Federico García Lorca to be pleasantly seductive. The Santa Fe production was beautiful, principally because of the set designed by California-based graffiti artist Gronk, who is responsible for designing this CD's cover art. Golijov's opera is doing as well as he could have hoped, I think, after its disastrous premiere. In the revised version engineered by Peter Sellars at Santa Fe, the opera has had concert performances at the Ravinia Festival and the Ojai Festival (Andrew Clark wrote a perceptive review for the Financial Times) this summer and will be staged at Cincinnati Opera in 2009.

In the year after that Santa Fe staging, most of the cast (including conspicuously silent Friend of Ionarts Anne-Carolyn Bird) went to Atlanta to make a recording with the Atlanta Symphony under Robert Spano. Golijov had reshaped the opera in Santa Fe, reportedly right up to opening night, and he continued to tinker with it during the recording process. That information comes from an article about conducting by Justin Davidson (Measure for Measure) in the August 21, 2006 issue of The New Yorker, which is largely a profile of Spano. (The magazine has a video excerpt of various conductors online, with Davidson's commentary.) The opera may never be "finished" for Golijov, but at least there is now a more or less definitive version on CD.

Kelley O'Connor and Dawn Upshaw in Ainadamar, 2005, Santa Fe Opera, photo by Ken Howard © 2005
Kelley O'Connor and Dawn Upshaw in Ainadamar, Santa Fe Opera, photo by Ken Howard © 2005
The opera loses something without the visual beauty of the Santa Fe staging. This is especially true of the Gunshot Interlude, which leads into the Third Image: on stage, Lorca and the other two victims are shot in a balletic sequence -- being shot, falling down, dying, standing up again, when the cycle starts over, as if time were stuck in a terrible loop (Sellars has likened it to watching the same disaster clip on CNN over and over). The effect is dramatically weakened, slightly, with only the sounds, and in general I am not sure what impact this recording would make on a listener unfamiliar with the piece as live theater.

However, Ainadamar has considerable appeal and will likely make a nice choice for sultry evening background sound (easy on the ears, by comparison with many other modern operas, certainly), beyond the growing market of those who have seen the opera staged. If nothing else, the price of the CD is justified by the opportunity to hear the final trio ("Venga, tome su mano" and "Doy mi sangre") as Margarita (Dawn Upshaw) is united in death with her beloved student Nuria (soprano Jessica Rivera) and the shade of Lorca (the unclassifiable Kelley O'Connor).

After my experiment with teaching William Bolcom's Songs of Innocence and of Experience in class last year, I am going to devote some time this year to García Lorca and Ainadamar, perhaps combined with Silvestre Revueltas's Homenaje a García Lorca and Crumb's Ancient Voices of Children. Since one of the supposed appeals of crossover music is to draw in younger listeners, I like to find out what my students think of it. In my experience, students approach this music more or less the same way as they do the Four Seasons or Beethoven's ninth symphony, that is, with a lot of skepticism. The fact that it incorporates "popular" idioms does nothing to recommend it.


Alex Ross said...


In what sense was the Tanglewood premiere of Ainadamar "disastrous"? The audience acclaimed it wildly. I wrote a positive review, as did Richard Dyer and Mark Swed, although each of us had reservations about some aspect or another of the opera as it was originally presented. There were positive reviews from many other critics. Tony Tommasini didn't like it much at all. Only if you consider the New York Times the sole arbiter of success or failure could you describe the event as "disastrous."

Also, what do you mean by "crossover"? I find your use of the term misleading — it conjures up Il Divo or something like that. This is an opera that derives much of its material from the flamenco tradition, and specifically from music in the Andalusian cante jondo category which Lorca and de Falla celebrated for its _distance_ from commercial popular music. Would you describe de Falla or Bartók's folk-based music as "crossover"? Is "Porgy and Bess" a "crossover" opera? Is Ockeghem's Missa "L'homme armé" a "crossover" mass? You're stacking the deck by your choice of terms.


Charles T. Downey said...

I should congratulate Alex on the fine liner notes (introduction) he wrote for this CD, adapted from his review for "The New Yorker," which was indeed mostly positive. Perhaps "disastrous" is not the right word, but the premiere was widely (if not exclusively) acknowledged as a failure. Indeed, Mark Swed, whose initial review Alex cites as "positive," reviewed the Santa Fe revised production under the headline "Out of failure, a new victory." As for Richard Dyer, when he reviewed this very recording, he looked back at his impressions of the Tanglewood premiere with these words: "Ainadamar felt like a work-in-progress then; the ink was barely dry on some pages, and the stage production was on an opera-workshop level." My understanding is that Golijov himself took most of the blame for the first version, which he admitted publicly was dashed together at the last minute.

As for whether one can fairly describe Golijov's style as "crossover," I am hardly the only one to identify this quality in his music. I would not have chosen Il Divo as a comparison (which is just a pop band trying to sing opera, and doing it badly), but it does qualify as crossover in the broadest sense, that is, a musical style borrowed more or less wholesale from another genre.

That Golijov's source material was once considered non-commercial is hardly the point. In today's popular culture, the flamenco sound is an accepted and widely exported one, with a commercial life far beyond its native Spain. I think this is what Richard Dyer meant when he wrote, also about this recording: "Golijov's music incorporates the ancient gestures and harmonies of Spanish folk music and its mingled Christian, Arab, and Jewish heritage with contemporary sophistication. It also responds to the various commercial adaptations of those folk idioms."

Almost all of Alex's examples (I think "Porgy" actually is a crossover work, an opera/musical with a lot of jazz idioms) involve composers using an actual folk melody (L'homme armé) or folk-inspired qualities (de Falla and Bartók) as a basis for much more complicated forms of composition. That is, most great folk adaptations in classical music are pieces that no listener could mistake for folk music, because the folk inspiration has been assimilated, reconfigured through compositional recombination with other musical DNA. It is because large sections of "Ainadamar" are hard to distinguish from their folk models that I identify it as crossover. I hope that, with this clarification, no one will feel misled.

What is missed in all of this is that, with some reservations, I like this opera and am actually recommending that people buy the recording, which I am happy to have. Some people will not like "Ainadamar," however, and I wrote what I wrote so that people would know what to expect. After all, I would not choose to teach this opera to my students if I did not think it was worth the effort.

Alex Ross said...

There is much overstatement on the question of the revisions of Ainadamar, both by the composer and by critics. I have the scores of the two versions. The great majority of the music is the same, down to tiny musical details (dynamic markings, etc.), although in parts of the second version new words have been devised to fit the extant vocal lines. And, of course, new scenes were added. Basically, it's a longer opera rather than a different opera.

Here, from Golijov's website, are excerpts from the original reviews by Dyer and Swed. I don't get a "failure" vibe from them, although perhaps there are countervailing messages missing from the excerpts. As I recall, most critics had trouble with the production, not the opera.


Hwang's flashback dramaturgy is conventional and skillful to the point of slickness, but his poetic language, and Lorca's, has inspired some astonishing music from Golijov. The work is a series of long sinuous melodies, interrupted by brief passages of narrative recitative; the melodies are hypnotically repeated to create structures of meaning and memory. The orchestration is colorful, and there are extraordinary electronic elements built on the sound of horses (one of Lorca's obsessions) and on the sound of water (Ainadamar, "the fountain of tears," is the Moorish fountain next to which Lorca was executed). The whole piece is gorgeous and seductive...


The score is more subdued and less varied than "Marco," influenced more by Spanish music, particularly flamenco, than South American. It is full of stunning things. The vocal writing is passionate, and Upshaw, as the older Margarita, sang the role rivetingly. The student cast was excellent, particularly mezzo Kelley O'Connor as Lorca.
Although balances between stage and pit need further work, Golijov's orchestral writing is often special. The rhythmic groove in the bass, the dancing distant trumpet lines and the intensely expressive wind solos were just a few of the things that carried this gratified listener along. Robert Spano conducted with graceful enthusiasm, and the student orchestra played with considerable refinement, if not quite enough abandon.

Also, T J Medrek:

Those of us at the Tanglewood Theatre on Sunday evening for the world premiere of Osvaldo Golijov's first opera, "Ainadamar," witnessed a rare and special thing: the debut of a new opera that works. It works mainly because Golijov can't seem to write music that isn't full of life, passion and drama. And what is opera but those very things?

William Spiegelmann, Opera News:

The Tanglewood audience exploded after Golijov's tuneful, lush and dramatically nuanced Ainadamar...The opera possesses both symmetry and depth...In a secular rather than a religious way, Ainadamar traces a path to transcendence.

Wes Blomster:

What's amazing about this opera is that, despite the sorrow of the story and the undertow of sadness in the score, it is a work of affirmation. Golijov has mastered the catharsis of great tragedy, and his hour-long piñata was rewarded with a prolonged standing ovation.

Alex Ross said...

I found the entire Swed review online. Here's the key paragraph: "There is no getting around Golijov's appeal. When the Argentine- born composer, who lives in the Boston area, came onstage for his curtain call, he received a rapt, standing ovation. The opera does, indeed, contain beguiling, original, moving, memorable music. But the fact that his work could prove winning despite an inept production and a mediocre libretto makes Golijov seem only that much more a phenomenon."

I still don't buy this "crossover" description. Golijov is writing in the tradition of de Falla and Silvestre Revueltas, using folk tradition as a source for operatic and orchestral music. The score is almost completely notated, except for two or three brief passages of improvisation for the flamenco singer. I say all this because there are weird urban legends floating around the music world to the effect that Golijov does not notate his music in advance, even that he does not know how to write music. Gershwin, of course, was subjected to the same sniping throughout his career, and had to show journalists the orchestral score of "Porgy" to prove that he actually wrote it. It's all very interesting from the anthropological standpoint — a tight-knit profession reacting against perceived threats.

jfl said...

Dear Alex,

I am not sure if the reaction by musicologists (or Charles', specifically) to Golijov's music is a reaction against a perceived threat... the threat being the advent of 'impurity in "classical" music' ??

His music can be liked or not and can be categorized in different ways. "Crossover" is one such categorization. It will be resented or disagreed with by those who like Golijov's music and find "Crossover" to have a negative connotation. (You certainly do, since you think of - eeks - "Il Divo" at the mention of Crossover.)

Crossover indicates the merging of two separate genres in a way where both survive in recognizable form. The Kronos Quartet is Crossover in most of their projects (the WEA people certainly think of them as that) and so is a lot of "Ayre" with its Disco beats and slew of other influences.

The constant influx of Flamenco and other popular South American sound-idioms could well be considered "Crossover", even if you don't. Notation has nothing to do with it... even Metallica notates their music.

Finally: one can call Gershwin "Crossover" and still like him and respect and regard his music. If there was sniping then, there is none today. The same could be true for Golijov who obviously gets plenty help and support from some of the most important critics in this country. By disagreeing with Golijov being the 'future of classical music', I don't get the sense thta Charles is trying to be a 'keeper for the musicologist flame of purity' but simply giving a (very informed) opinion. An opinion he also shares with Robert R. Reilly ("I simply can't Salsa down the Via Dolorosa") - and, to some extent (not that that adds anything), with myself.



Charles T. Downey said...

Alex, thanks for all of the information, especially about the two scores. It is good to be reminded that the last person we should trust, in assessing music, is the composer himself. I could believe that the "failure" of the Tanglewood version was exaggerated, perhaps to get people to listen to the revision as a "new work."

I am glad to have the text from Swed's actual review, as I am not inclined to trust a selection of press opinions on a composer's Web site, either. I know, to cite at least one example, that Golijov's Web site modified the title of Swed's Santa Fe review to make it more favorable, excising the word "failure," if I remember correctly.

Thanks very much for taking the time to comment at such length, and to provide some background. It's interesting to hear of the murmuring about Golijov's alleged music illiteracy, which sounds absurd (it's news to me anyway). Another example of that kind of criticism, of course, is Giacinto Scelsi.

Alex Ross said...

Thanks, Jens and Charles, for your comments. I did not mean to lump Charles into the category of purists tending the flame - that was directed at composers who have questioned Golijov's competency. Simple envy would seem to be the source of that.

I find the term "crossover" problematic in this instance because it lacks historical awareness; it gives a modern name to a very old practice. For centuries composers have been taking material from "outside" classical composition and incorporating it into their work. Indeed, historians will tell you that the notion of a strict boundary between "classical" and "popular" music is a modern invention, dating from the bourgeois nineteenth century, anachronistic to the time of Monteverdi or Mozart. By your definition a huge fraction of the classical repertory would have to be renamed crossover.

"Disco" on Ayre? Are you talking about the rapid pulse in "Tancas serradas a muru"? Disco is in steady 4/4, usually with sixteenth-note pulses, whereas this seems to be a fast 12/8, again characteristic of flamenco. All the sources of this music seem very old, despite the amplified production and the overlay of digital effects.

jfl said...
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jfl said...

Indeed, historians will tell you that the notion of a strict boundary between "classical" and "popular" music is a modern invention, dating from the bourgeois nineteenth century, anachronistic to the time of Monteverdi or Mozart.

Taking it from Alex Ross is good enough to convince me. But I think since the distinction (although perhaps not *as* strict as some would like to see it) does exist now - modern invention or not - and since popular music *has* largely separated from "Classical", the modern term can be well be applied to modern music. It is the difficulty of closing the gap in the listener's perception that is important, because "Classical" music is not well served by being thought of as something inherently different than popular music. I need not tell you that, as long as 95-plus percent of the Classical Music industry is one of re-creation (sifting out and performing the greatest hits from the last 400 years), this is a daunting task. The problem of "Pop" (and one of the meaningful distinctions) is that we are , as listeners, involved in the sifting process, whereas history has done the job for us with so much of "Classical" music.

By your definition a huge fraction of the classical repertory would have to be renamed crossover.

Just how big is a 'huge fraction'? :)
If I stick with you on "Crossover" being a modern term (it is, of course) and acknowledging the perception of Classical Music has indeed shifted from 'popular' to its own category, then that term should only be applied to music that has been created since that schism occurred. Back then, there was "Traditional/Folk" and "Classical". Today there are many new styles and layers in music -- creative and re-creative (sampling, re-mixing) and a cross-fertilization that makes categorization more difficult. (Though not impossible.) To that end, I believe the term "Crossover" has a meaningful place in all musics. The fact that we've gotten so quickly into a fairly detailed distinction of what we mean by it goes to show that the willingness to distinguish and specify is alive and well.



Anonymous said...

"Ainadamar" is being performed in Boulder, Colorado, by the amazing Colorado Music Festival Orchestra, conducted by the spectacular Michael Christie, on July 19th and 20th, 2007. (No, I am not on the payroll.)
There will be "minimal" staging -- singers move about a little, in front of the orchestra.

There is a lot of "sound design" going on -- not only the taped sounds of fountain, horses, gun shots, and so on. I don't have a score and am interested in how this is coordinated. Can anyone enlighten me??

Anonymous said...

I saw AINADAMAR at Tanglewood, along with the opener Robert Zuidam's Rage d'Amours. While not a perfect piece, and certainly sketchy at times, it was hardly a disaster. In fact, it was a thrilling evening.

Carmen-Helena Téllez said...

As Director of the Indiana Univertsity Latin American Music Center I am sorry to have found this discussion so late! But it is still fascinating and enlightening. I conducted the collegiate premiere of Ainadamar in October 2007, more like a passion-play, with minimal staging in front of the orchestra, and supertitles. It works very well in this manner, as it takes away the expectation to show conventional dramatic action. The audience reacted favorably and passionately, with many spectators coming backstage still moved to tears, a fact that I can humbly attribute to the music. The final judgment on this work will come only with time, but it is certainly earning opportunities for continued appreciation and evaluation. A small comment--Classical music has hundreds of years of assimilation of popular styles, from where it has re-energized itself; and Latin American art music has always had a fluid relationship with its popular genres. This conversation will not end here, clearly. Thank you all for your insights.