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Golijov’s “Azul” in a Fresh Context

Osvaldo Golijov, Yo-Yo Ma

LOS ANGELES -- The modest Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra has long peppered its programs with established stars. And its concert at UCLA's Royce Hall on Jan. 11 was in that vein, with Yo-Yo Ma as soloist in the West Coast premiere of Osvaldo Golijov's de-facto cello concerto "Azul."

Now in its 12th season under Jeffrey Kahane's leadership, LACO regularly sets goals of small-scale ambition and handily meets them. Adding Golijov's exciting new piece to an otherwise conventional program of Fauré's "Elegy" and Beethoven's Symphony No. 7 proved a smart move, with all three offering just the sort of balm people are seeking these days.

Commissioned by the Boston Symphony for its 125th anniversary, "Azul" (blue in Spanish) received its premiere in 2006 at Tanglewood, with Ma as soloist. It's a rhapsodic work in six movements, played without pause, and pits an impassioned cello against widely varying orchestral textures punctuated by hyper-accordion (essentially the traditional instrument amplified) and percussion indigenous to Latin America.

Michael Ward-Bergeman's work In typical Golijov style, the piece generates much of its impact from mixing ethnic styles, primarily Judaic and Latino - it was loosely inspired by a Neruda poem. Opening in gently agitated fashion, the music gives way to lyrical, even moving, cello motifs. That mood is further heightened by the haunting presence of the hyper-accordion (here played by Michael Ward-Bergeman), which lends a sentimental flavor kept this side of bathos by percussion.

Ma bobbed and weaved gamely through the work's myriad moods but his showcase came primarily in an arid cadenza that led into a festive section replete with especially exotic percussion, skillfully deployed by Jamey Haddad and Keita Ogawa.

The piece even hints at Sibelius as it makes its way through an anthemic, songful coda that increases in fervor as cacophony mounts. Finally, some 30 minutes after the music has begun, comes the strange sound of rapid descent until there is nothing to savor but silence.

Kahane offered Ma, his old friend and chamber music partner, dedicated support, though added rehearsals might have produced greater cohesion among the disparate forces. Not that the audience cared a whit. Though some might cavil about this work's overt accessibility - at times it was virtually cinematic, and it recalls Bruch's "Kol Nidrei" too often - the reception it garnered from LACO's traditionally conservative audience was nothing short of rapturous. In part, that was due to Ma's presence, but his celebrity alone can't explain the wave of warmth that greeted the composer as he took his bows.

Before "Azul," Ma joined the orchestra for Fauré's "Elegy," which he dispatched as though he were playing Elgar. The reading had plenty of vigor and feeling, just the wrong kind. There was nothing even remotely French - which is to say, subtle - about it.

The Beethoven was a different matter. Never has the Seventh Symphony suggested its immediate predecessor, the "Pastoral," so much as it did in this fleet, exuberant account, replete with resonant winds playing and warm strings. A friend suggested, rightly, that it sounded like Rossini; what a wonderful counterweight for the preceding "Azul." Kahane balanced his forces beautifully, no easy feat in a piece that most listeners expect to hear sound heavier.

It's worth mentioning that the evening was dedicated to Betty Freeman, the prolific and beloved new music patron who died earlier this month at 87. Who knows what she'd have made of this concert, so unpredictable were her reactions to music, new and old. But she surely would have cheered the effort, for her main concern was always that people try - and that went as much for audiences as it did for composers.