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Composed: 2006; revised 2007
Length: c. 27 minutes
Orchestration: In addition to solo cello, 3 flutes (all doubling piccolo), English horn, clarinet, basset horn, bassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani, percussion (bells, bottle shaker, cajon, caxixi, conga, cricket, 2 djembe, dumbek, finger cymbal, flat tom-tom, goat’s nail, gourd, kanjira, pandeiro, seed rattles, shaker, sleigh bells, spring, static whip, surdo, talking drum, temple block, triangle, waterphone, wind whistle), celesta, harp, hyper-accordion, and strings

First Los Angeles Philharmonic performances

Osvaldo Golijov’s cello concerto Azul is emblematic of this composer’s gift for integrating diverse influences into a fresh vision that resonates with contemporary audiences. Born in 1960 in La Plata, Argentina, to Eastern European Jewish immigrants, Golijov came of age as a musical polyglot, absorbing styles and idioms he naturally encountered side by side: Old World classical tradition heard in chamber music concerts at home, synagogue chant, Yiddish klezmer, the innovations of tango master Astor Piazzolla, and Latin American folk music. After some years studying in Israel, Golijov settled in the United States in 1986, where he has continued to expand his stylistic palette through close collaborations with performers whose input plays a significant role in his creative process.

Golijov’s international breakthrough came with the extraordinary response to his Latin-inflected retelling of the Christian Passion, introduced for the millennium (La Pasión según San Marcos). Other major works include his first opera, Ainadamar, a dreamlike meditation on the life and death of Spanish poet Federico García Lorca; the chamber song cycle Ayre, which revisits the blend of Jewish, Arab, and Christian cultures that coexisted in Spain in medieval times; and the choral-orchestral Oceana, a response to Bach’s cantatas by way of Latin American poetry.

Much as his works meld vocabularies from folk, dance, and varied ethnic idioms, Golijov’s scoring frequently compounds the traditional orchestra with unconventional instrumentation to create newly minted blends. In Azul, for example, an expanded percussion section together with the haunting sonority of the “hyper-accordion” (a recent invention of accordionist Michael Ward-Bergeman) is an essential part of the concerto’s soundscape. Azul began as a commission in 2006 from the Boston Symphony, which Golijov intended as a piece for Yo-Yo Ma grounded more in contemplation than in virtuoso display. After Ma premiered the work at Tanglewood, Golijov decided to rework Azul and substantially expanded the concerto into four interlinked sections. This revised version was given its premiere, with Alisa Weilerstein as soloist, at the Lincoln Center Mostly Mozart Festival in 2007.

Although Azul follows no specific program, it fuses together varied sources of inspiration: not only the composer’s impressions of the artistry of the soloists for whom he originally composed the concerto, but timeless landscapes described by one of the great Latin American poets, the longing for peace, images of the earth from a great distance, and – more technically – the musical models of the Baroque era. In its first incarnation, Golijov imagined Azul as a memento of his own time as a Tanglewood fellow when he would listen to open-air concerts on bucolic summer evenings, with the peaceful blue sky as a canopy. (A reference captured by the title, the Spanish word for “blue.”) 

When he began revising the score, however, Golijov realized that the original version lacked a sense of tension and conflict; in short, it was too single-mindedly focused on an undifferentiated state of contemplative bliss – a bliss that had not yet been “earned.” A re-reading of The Heights of Macchu Picchu, one of the major works by Chilean poet Pablo Neruda (1904-1973), spurred Golijov to reconceptualize Azul in terms of powerfully metaphorical polarities drawn from nature. The implied journey thus introduced creates a new context for the blissful heights evoked by the opening music. From this point Golijov takes us deep into the earth’s core, returns to the airborne sensations of the opening, and drifts further and further beyond into the stars.

Another significant influence on the musical layout and the relationship of soloist to ensemble comes from Golijov’s appreciation of the Baroque. The composer has remarked that he wanted to recapture the “majesty of certain Baroque adagios,” and he even reimagines material from François Couperin, one of the masters of the French Baroque, to whom Golijov had also paid homage in his 2002 chamber work, Tenebrae (source of material for the concerto’s fourth section). In addition, Golijov adapts the Baroque concerto principle of other instruments “teaming up” with the soloist into smaller ensembles that play in tandem with the orchestra as a whole. He fashions a “21st-century continuo” (Golijov’s term) from the hyper-accordion (one of several amplified instruments called for) and his intriguing array of percussion, among which can be found a bottle shaker, waterphone, surdo, wind whistle, and even “goat’s nail’ (or goat hoof rattle, chajchas). The percussionists are moreover given leeway to improvise and try out new combinations.

The opening section of Azul is titled Paz Sulfúrica (“sulfuric peace”), after a passage of Neruda’s poem that conveys an intense sense of connectedness to the natural world: “I plunged a turbulent and tender hand / to the most secret organs of the earth.” The music similarly ranges between sky and earth with its impassioned melody for the soloist and the ethereal, above-the-battle aura produced by the hyper-accordion, which joins up with the cello and the two percussionists to form Golijov’s special “continuo.” This richly colorful blend of textures is a far cry from the clear-cut dichotomy of individual (soloist) and group (orchestra) emphasized by the conventional virtuosity of the Romantic concerto. The improvising percussionists round off this part. Then follows the blissful Silencio – Golijov’s “Baroque adagio,” which revisits the ancient form of the chaconne. Against a harmonic sequence that continues to repeat its pattern as a foundation, a series of variations unfolds and the cello soars in a kind of sustained slow motion, transported by its meditative ecstasy. The sky’s blue reflects an oceanic immensity.

The third part, Transit, centers on an expansive cadenza for the cello and its associated continuo instruments. Hints of the Bach cello suites intertwine with vibrant threads from world music as Golijov’s Silk Road-like assembly of percussion instruments adds to the sonic tapestry. Something of the sensibility we heard in the opening section is reprised in the fourth, Yrushalem (“Jerusalem”), whose title refers to ideas Golijov explored in Tenebrae, the Couperin-inspired chamber music piece mentioned earlier. Having witnessed the “start of the new wave of violence” during a trip to Israel in 2000, recalls Golijov regarding Tenebrae, he subsequently visited the planetarium in New York with his son and “wanted to write a piece that could be listened to from different perspectives…music that would sound as an orbiting spaceship that never touches ground.” An animated double-coda (Pulsar and Shooting Stars) is also directed beyond the constricted viewpoint of earth. With astral imagery that evokes a trip further out into space, beyond our planet’s blue circle, the concerto ends with a series of high-energy waves, as if signaling to extraterrestrials.

Thomas May is a frequent contributor to Los Angeles Philharmonic programs.