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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 Quartet.

“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 modernized.

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 the Brahms.

Mike Greenberg