An Exciting BPO Opening Night

Yo-Yo Ma

By Jan Jezioro

Cellist Yo-Yo Ma offers the BPO premier of Osvaldo Golijov’s Azul

For many decades, the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra would launch its new season in its home in Kleinhans Music Hall with a pair of concerts, on Saturday evening and Sunday afternoon, almost invariably featuring a “big name” guest soloist, playing a well known, audience favorite piece. Beginning in 2003 the orchestra changed its scheduling practices, and started programming the opening concert as a stand-alone, Saturday evening event, still featuring a well known soloist playing an equally well known work.

The one exception occurred in 2003, the first year of the new scheduling setup, when three well known female violinists from very different performing traditions—classical, jazz, and fiddle—performed, besides some of the usual violin repertoire, Christopher Brubeck’s Interplay for 3 Violins and Orchestra, a new work commissioned for them the previous year by the Boston Pops. Since 2004, the BPO has continued to engage classical star soloists to perform audience favorites on opening night, in what has become the orchestra’s best attended concert each season.

This year’s BPO opening night breaks the pattern in a couple of ways. For starters, the opening night is now on a Wednesday, September 18 at 8pm, a first. The concert, under the baton of BPO music director JoAnn Falletta, will feature a performance by superstar Yo-Yo Ma, one of the best known performers in the classical music world, who last appeared with the BPO on opening night in 2005, playing Elgar’s Cello Concerto. What is different this time around is that Yo-Yo Ma will be performing Azul, a new concerto for cello and orchestra written for him in 2006 by the Argentine composer Osvaldo Golijov, and it will be the first performance ever of one of the contemporary composer’s works on a BPO program. Interestingly, the New York Philharmonic Orchestra will celebrate its season opening concert at its home in Avery Fisher Hall, also on a Wednesday, exactly one week later, and it will also feature Yo-Yo Ma as soloist, playing the very same Golijov concerto. A bit of a coup, anyway you look at it, when the BPO scoops the New York Philharmonic.

Born in La Plata in 1960 into a Jewish family that had emigrated from Eastern Europe, Golijov, whose mother was a piano teacher, grew up in a household that exposed him to a wide range of musical influences, including classical music, Jewish klezmer and liturgical music, and tango music, including the new tango music of Astor Piazzolla. After his initial studies in Argentina, Golijov spent three years studying in Israel before coming to the United States, where he earned his PhD at the University of Pennsylvania, studying with the noted American modernist composer George Crumb.

Golijov, a MacArthur Fellowship winner, has collaborated closely with musical groups like the Kronos and the St. Lawrence string quartets, the Atlanta, Boston and Chicago symphony orchestras, and noted soloists.

Golijov’s breakthrough work was 2000’s Passion after St. Mark, a commissioned work celebrating the 250th anniversary of J. S. Bach’s death. Golijov’s new-found celebrity brought him additional high-profile commissions, including one from the Boston Symphony Orchestra for Azul, composed for cello and orchestra, and premiered at Tanglewood in 2006.

Inspired by “The Heights of Macchu Picchu,” a poem by the great Chilean poet Pablo Neruda, Azul is a meditative work, very different in tone from Golijov’s previous works. Writing at the time of its premier, Golijov said, “I’m interested in a whole new palette of surface and spiritual color.” While composing this concerto, Golijov drew his inspiration from the musical language of the Baroque era, making use of forms such as the passacaglia and the chaconne. “I find that these Baroque forms resonate better in our times,” he said. “We don’t have an Enlightenment right now to support the use of sonata form in a concerto, in which a soloist dominates the group. Instead, we live in a time where the individual occupies a smaller place.”

In addition to solo cello, Azul is scored for a amazing array of percussion instruments: bells, bottle shaker, cajon, caxixi, conga, cricket, 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, plus celesta, harp, hyper-accordion, and strings.

Definitely not your traditional BPO opening night fare, but made more palatable, no doubt, by the appearance of Yo-Yo Ma, the only classical music soloist in the same league as pianist Lang Lang, and by its pairing with the other big work on the program, Stravinsky’s ever popular Firebird Suite.