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Golijov Charts the Universality of Bereavement


Mirroring and musically expanding upon David Grossman’s heart-wrenching book “Falling Out of Time” (2014), Osvaldo Golijov’s music added extra, painful dimensions to the text. “We still don’t know, Golijov has said, “what Falling Out of Time is. We know it is not an opera, and it is not a song cycle either. We concluded that the most apt description is “a Tone Poem in Voices,” following David’s own description of his novel as “a Novel in Voices.” (Globe interview). He has said his process was not to translate and adapt, but to enter and then emerge. Grossman describes Golijov’s composition as his book for voices. “And the voices were enveloped by music. And suddenly, I understood how music is even more precise than prose.” Golijov adds, “To me at least, Falling Out of Time is essentially two things: a long walk towards “there,” and a book of unanswerable questions. I would say then that it is a child of Orpheus and Kindertotenlieder.”

In the summer of 2006 during the second Lebanon war, Uri Grossman, son of the celebrated Israeli novelist David Grossman, first entered Lebanon with his tank and his team. On a Saturday evening, during a rescue operation in the eastern sector, his tank was hit by a missile fired by Hizbullah

Shortly after Uri’s death, his father, novelist David Grossman, wrote a song comparing the short burst of springtime to the loss of a young soldier as seen through the eyes of a parent. Eight years later David Grossman publishedFalling Out of Time.” For those, who, like this reviewer, who had read the sparse text―part novel, play, fable and epic poem—several times and had heard the author recite much of it, we experienced a poignant reliving of this book as Osvaldo Golijov’s “Tone Poem in Voices,” riffing on Grossman’s description of his book as “A Novel in Voices.”

Nora Fisher fronts ensemble (Hilary Scott photo)

It took a veritable village to mount Sunday’s Celebrity Series of Boston-Boston Symphony Orchestra co-production. Golijov scored for a multitude: a classical string quartet, a jazz bass, a kamancheh, a Persian bowed instrument, a pipa, a concert grand harp, a Chinese lute (taking the place a zither which might otherwise occupy in such music), a modular synthesizer, a drum kit, a one-man brass section, and three folk vocalists including the arresting women singers, Nora Fischer (Centaur), and Biella da Costa (woman),  and  Yoni Rechter (Man) an singer/actor with a large, devoted following in Israel. They approximated Near-Eastern modes without using microtones. The ensemble comprised Dan Brantigan, trumpet and flugelhorn; Shawn Conley, acoustic and electric bass; Jeremy Flower, electric guitar and synthesizer; Johnny Gandelsman, violin; Mario Gotoh, viola; Karen Ouzounian, cello; Shane Shanahan, percussion; Mazz Swift, violin; Megan Conley, harp. Each instrumentalist held the audience spellbound, as did the three singers.

In Grossman’s slender book, a nameless man who lost his son five years before abruptly bolts from the kitchen table, leaves his wife behind, and sets out on a long walk, taking ever-wider circles on the hills surrounding their town. The Centaur, half human, half desk, tells of townspeople, bereaved like the Man, who follow him, leaving their homes: a midwife, her husband the cobbler, a net mender, and elderly math teacher. Golijov quotes heartbreaking passages from the book: “If You meet him, will you tell him that you gave his dog to a boy on the street? Will you tell him of his brother born after him?” All look for a “there” containing their dead children. They try desperately to reach out to the dead and free them from their death. They find solace in their communal effort of breaching death’s hermetic separateness, of what Grossman calls the island of total exile which is grief. Falling becomes a walking shiva (the Jewish custom of gathering around the bereaved for 7 days).

Golijov divides Grossman’s novel into 13 parts, illustrating loss and grief with his signature eclectic style with jazz, blues, and elements of central Asian music. Almost all the instrumentalists offered up extended solos. The harp part, which seems to have been missing from the recording of this piece and from previous performances, is particularly well-written. Each instrumentalist seriously impressed. The two women singers acted brilliantly.

Golijov deployed his customary mélange of styles; each worked wonders in translating Grossman’s words into a searing 80-minute musical midrash (commentary).

In projections designed by Camilla Tassi, Mary Frank’s artwork riveted us with meaning. Deeply felt emotions came across that only an artist with a life as rich, tragic, and complex as hers could have conceived. We see her teachers Max Beckmann and Hans Hoffman, but also feel the topical engagement of a modern Goya. Stage Manager Lauren Cavanaugh directed our eyes to important happenings with sensitive lighting.

The large audience stumbled out, stunned, saddened, and dazed. We left haunted by a profoundly moving experience.

Susan Miron is a book critic, essayist, and harpist. She writes about classical music and books for The Arts Fuse. Her last two CDs featured her transcriptions of keyboard music of Domenico Scarlatti.

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