Cactus Pear Music Festival
Golijov's dreams and prayers from the depths
July 18, 2013
The concluding weekend of the Cactus Pear Music
Festival attained its emotional peak with Osvaldo Golijov’s
“The Dreams and Prayers of Isaac the Blind,” a 1994 work for
klezmer-style clarinet and string quartet.
The Golijov was the centerpiece of a concert of
20th-century works by Jewish composers -- also including
Gideon Klein, Alan Shulman and Erich Wolfgang Korngold
-- July 13 in Coker United Methodist Church. The previous
evening offered a finely crafted set of quintets -- Mozart’s
Clarinet Quintet in A and string quintets by Alexander
Glazunov and Johannes Brahms.
Mr. Golijov was born in 1960 in Argentina to a Jewish family
that had emigrated from Romania and Russia in the 1920s. He
studied in Israel for three years before moving to the
United States, where he has lived since 1986.
His biography contributed the many influences in his music,
which borrows freely from Argentinian tango,
Eastern-European klezmer bands and the Western-European
tradition from Classical to Modern. If that overused and
underconsidered term “Post-Modern” applies properly to any
music, it applies to his.
Unusually for a serious composer who is not long-dead, Mr.
Golijov has been well represented on San Antonio concert
programs in recent seasons. San Antonio Symphony audiences
have heard two sets of songs, the orchestral “Last Round”
and, as a gorgeous solo encore by cellist Alisa Weilerstein,
“Omaramor.” Two works for string quartet have been essayed
by Camerata San Antonio and the visiting Jupiter String
“The Dreams and Prayers of Isaac the Blind” is more
substantial than any of those works, both in duration (about
40 minutes in this performance) and in cumulative impact. It
comprises three movements plus a prelude and its mirror
image in a postlude. Much of the music is, as the title
implies, prayerful -- quiet, nearly still. The clarinet (or
bass clarinet) sometimes breaks into elaborate, heavily
inflected melody, like the chanting of the cantor in
Orthodox synagogues, or wild, bravura outbursts from the
klezmer tradition. The third movement, whose Hebrew title
refers to a Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement) prayer, begins in
desolation. Glassy high harmonics in the strings suggest
whimpering. The clarinet enters with a long, sad
melody, which becomes a cantorial wail from the depths. A
long passage of slashing chords on the strings suggests the
Yom Kippur tradition of breast-beating.
What is most remarkable about this music is that it seems an
almost unmediated expression of the unconscious, of
universal human feelings for which we have no adequate
names. In that sense, this work made an ideal counterpart to
Olivier Messiaen’s “Quartet for the End of Time,” which had
been the peak of the festival’s opening weekend.
The performance could hardly have been bettered. The style
is mother’s milk to the clarinetist, Ilya Shterenberg, a
native of Ukraine and principal clarinet of the San Antonio
Symphony. The top-notch strings came from far and wide --
violinists Bella Hristova and Elena Urioste, violist Ara
Gregorian and cellist Dmitri Atapine.
The other major work on the July 13 concert was
Korngold’s String Sextet in D. Though the composer was only
19 years old at its completion in 1916, the sextet is
a surprisingly assured excursion in the ripe Romanticism of
Richard Strauss and Hugo Wolf. Violinist Stephanie
Sant’Ambrogio, violist Daniel Panner and cellists Anthony
Ross and Beth Rapier joined Ms. Hristova and Mr. Gregorian
in the handsomely polished performance.
Klein composed his String Trio (Ms. Sant’Ambrogio, Mr.
Panner and Mr. Ross) in the Teresianstadt concentration camp
in 1944, shortly before he was sent to his death in
Auschwitz. The music suggests nothing of those
circumstances. The outer allegros are cheerful and lively,
and even the middle slow movement’s moderately serious tone
is broken by episodes of jollity. The idiom recalls the
folk-inflected Czech nationalism of Janacek, somewhat
A delightfully refreshing sorbet was Shulman’s jazzy
“Rendez-vous,” composed in 1946 for the clarinetist Benny
Goodman and the Stuyvesant String Quartet, of which Mr.
Shulman was cellist and co-founder. collaborators in the
stylish performance were Mr. Shterenberg, Ms. Urioste, Ms.
Hristova, Mr. Panner and Ms. Rapier.
That same contingent had opened the previous evening
with Mozart’s Clarinet Quintet in A, in a performance
distinguished by Mr. Shterenberg’s rich tone and his sense
of the long melodic line.
Glazunov’s String Quintet in A (which follows
Schubert’s precedent in calling for two cellos) and Brahms’s
String Quintet No. 1 in F (two violas) benefited from the
radiant presence of Mr. Gregorian’s viola and from Ms.
Sant’Ambrogio’s juicy middle and low registers in the second
violin part. In Glazunov they were joined by Ms. Urioste,
Mr. Ross and Mr. Atapine -- one of the most posh-sounding
ensembles ever fielded by Cactus Pear. Only a whisker behind
was the Brahms team -- Ms. Hristova, Ms. Sant’Ambrogio, Mr.
Gregorian, Mr. Panner and Mr. Ross. That cellist’s limpid
tone and enveloping resonance were especially memorable in