Although Osvaldo Golijov has been called one of the most exciting classical contemporary composers working today, his meandering 2007 piece, “Rose of the Winds,” which made its area debut on Sunday afternoon with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, left much unsaid in a work that felt far less than fully formed. Commissioned for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Yo-Yo Ma’s acclaimed Silk Road Ensemble, which has been tracing the musical and actual road from the Far East to Europe for years now, this version is a new setting first performed three years ago under BSO music director Marin Alsop’s baton.
Golijov has had problems finishing up works in the past; it has been reported that he missed deadlines or withdrew from major commissions. Yet, the Jewish composer who teaches at the College of Holy Cross in Worcester, Mass., remains a popular voice in expanding the modern classical canon, drawing from his diverse roots growing up in a Russian-Jewish family in Argentina.
His mother, a piano teacher, introduced him as a youth to opera and tango, especially Buenos Aires’ singular tango voice, Astor Piazzolla, while he was also immersed in Jewish liturgical music at his family’s synagogue.
He spent some of his college years training in Israel at the Rubin Academy, where he immersed himself in the multicultural sounds that fill Jerusalem: from the five-times daily call of the muezzin to Muslim prayer, to the chants of Christian monks and the diverse liturgies of Sephardic and Ashkenazi Jews.
Known for his melding and blending of cultures, Golijov, in “Rose of the Winds,” draws from Persian, klezmer, Arab-Christian and Mexican melodies, tonalities and rhythms. The BSO, which makes its Montgomery County home at Bethesda’s Music Center at Strathmore, provided support for four excellent soloists representing “four corners” of Golijov’s musical sphere during the 20-minute, four-movement work.
The title, “Rose of the Winds,” suggests the four cardinal points of the compass, which, on maps with intermediate points marked, resembles a flower.
The work opens with the enticing oscillating sounds of the Galician bagpipe or gaita, played coyly by Cristina Pato. This first movement, “Wah Habibi,” is based on an Arab-Christian song for Easter Friday. New klezmer clarinetist David Krakauer added his voice with a sequence that felt as celebratory as an Eastern European Jewish wedding from 90 years ago. Playing the four-stringed Persian kamancheh, three-time Grammy nominee Kayhan Kalhor added gentle notes of longing, with the aching minor strains of this ancient instrument. Finally, Michael Ward-Bergeman, playing a tricked-up hyper-accordion connected to a synthesizer, dueled with Krakauer on clarinet, making for a boisterous, brightly realized interlude as enticing as dueling banjoes.
The second movement, “K’in Sventa Ch’ul Me’tik Kwadalupe,” or the Ritual for the Holy Mother of Guadalupe, features the symphony’s strings supporting a mysterious, ritualistic recording of a native Mexican chant. The final movement, “Tekyah,” the program noted, is the name of a village in central Iran. Yet, it recalls the shofar blowing during the High Holidays, both in name and composition. Golijov composed it to end with 10 shofar blowers. The BSO used only two on Sunday. Krakauer’s clarinet played the sing-song calling of the notes usually chanted by the rabbi or cantor in the synagogue, while two shofars, positioned in the uppermost boxes at the sides of the orchestra, responded with the tekiyot, the traditional shofar sounds. From Baltimore, Jack C. Crystal and Rabbi Moshe Shualy did the shofar honors, closing the work on an aspirational, if not inspirational note.
While “Rose of the Winds” drew from multiple cultures and challenged the orchestra, the work felt less like a composition than a haphazard collection of exotic instrumental solos and duets collected by Golijov. Conductor Alsop did graciously allow the four guest soloists, Pato, Kalhor, Krakauer and Ward-Bergeman, to improvise. The four instrumentalists jelled, riffing off each other with the flexibility of jazz musicians playing and interplaying with great sensitivity and respect.
The afternoon program opened with Samuel Barber’s driving score, “Medea’s Dance of Vengeance, Op. 23a,” commissioned in 1946 for Martha Graham’s “Cave of the Heart,” a modern dance based on the ancient Greek myth about Medea. The program closed with the groundbreaking Igor Stravinsky work “Rite of Spring.” The BSO’s rendering was far from riot-inducing, lacking the primitive heat necessary for the 1913 work to realize its rhythmically aggressive power.