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Lulled by Ravel, Bored by Golijov

The National Symphony Orchestra capped off its regular season with a special non-subscription concert last night that had the feel of a "summer nights" kind of program, and not in a good way. Guest conductor Jeffrey Kahane led a soporific selection of an hour's worth of Ravel's most subtle orchestral music. Yo-Yo Ma's appearance as soloist guaranteed that the hall was sold out, likely by some people who ended up feeling cheated by the piece he was playing, Osvaldo Golijov's Azul, which did not really spotlight Ma's best side.

While I continue to find Golijov's opera Ainadamar a seductive work, little else that he has composed seems to merit the media hype and number of commissions that he receives. He premiered Azul, an atmospheric "concerto" for solo and exotic percussion, at Tanglewood in 2006, with Yo-Yo Ma as the cellist: like so much of Golijov's work, including Ainadamar, it was finished at the last minute, and the composer later revised the work for another cellist, Alisa Weilerstein. Since then, orchestras all over the place have performed the work, the latest being the NSO. The piece is about a half-hour of not that much: a pleasing melody or two, some snappy rhythms, the reedy sound of the "hyperaccordion" of Michael Ward-Bergeman, and a children's treasury of odd percussive effects (wielded theatrically by soloists Cyro Baptista and Jamey Haddad).

The sounds are initially quite alluring -- of the "world music" sort that one might call NPR Music, but really not many steps above Yanni -- but then nothing really happens; themes are merely repeated, not developed, resulting in a sort of lush stasis that eventually collapses like a meringue. Golijov chose to rework some ideas from a previous piece, Tenebrae, and imported some melodic and harmonic ideas from Couperin's Leçons de ténèbres. The appeal of the forms referenced here, the repeating harmonic patterns of the passacaglia and chaconne, is not in their repetition, however, but in the variation introduced with each repetition. The big finish of the final movement, a resolution to the tonic that dissolves into a few minutes of shapeless glissandos, ultimately collapsing into the amplified repetition of sounds whispered into a microphone by one of the percussionists, gave the impression of a big tire or balloon expelling all of its air. The orchestra, reduced basically to being a sort of backup chord machine, must have been bored to tears.

Other Reviews:

Anne Midgette, In performance: NSO and Yo-Yo Ma (Washington Post, June 30)
The first half included enough luxuriant Ravel to stun a small cat, a series of pieces in a similarly atmospheric style that seemed like overkill even for a summer evening. At least the Pavane pour une infante défunte or Bolero did not make an appearance, but something less dreamy, like La valse, would have been a welcome shot in the arm. The composer's orchestration of Alborada del gracioso was evocative, although one questions having the trumpet -- and, worse, the French horn -- play those repeated-note guitar motifs. Putting the suite from Ma Mère l’Oye in the middle of the half required an awkward reseating -- the work calls only for strings and paired woodwinds and French horns, plus some percussion -- and the rough start in terms of intonation was a reminder that a more careful retuning after such a move is a good idea. This was lovely playing of a luscious orchestration, taken by Ravel through a number of incarnations after its creation as a four-hands piano piece for children. The oboe and especially English horn solos were beautiful, and the violin solos were in good hands with associate concertmaster Elisabeth Adkins. Kahane is a conductor more efficient than revelatory, clear of gesture but perhaps overly cutting and emphatically so (louder, more percussive page turns from a conductor have never been heard). For all that incision of gesture, orchestral ensemble was not always unified, as at several moments in the last movement of the Rapsodie espagnole. Ravel was such a masterful orchestrator, something that can be appreciated most in his arrangements of works originally for piano. This score has its own surprises, too -- was that a sarrusophone spotted at the end of the woodwind section playing the part Ravel wrote for it?

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