I didn’t know if I was the right person to review the New York premiere of Osvaldo Golijov’s song cycle “Falling Out of Time” at Zankel Hall on Friday.
The work is based on Israeli writer David Grossman’s book of the same name – part novel, part play and part epic poem – which expresses grief over the death of his son, Uri, as a soldier during the invasion of Lebanon by his country in 2006, the homeland of my parents. , which has been rocked for half a century by violent factionalism, including a civil war that took away two of my father’s sisters.
In Zankel, members of the Silkroad Ensemble gave voice to a father’s cry through a dozen songs in 80 minutes. The use of folk idioms – Sephardi, Middle Eastern and something like the blues – made the performance feel eerily intimate and age-old, as if the minds of a community had been opened up. The room offers a wide embrace, one that also wrapped around me.
Grossman’s book does not name a village or country, or assign heroes and villains in a geopolitical conflict. What he does is portray people united in mourning. Golijov dedicated his “voice symphonic poem” to the Parents’ Circle-Families Forum, an organization that brings together bereaved Israeli and Palestinian families.
It is therefore logical that Golijov built the sound world of “Falling” from the crucible of instruments of the Silkroad Ensemble. There is a classical string quartet; a jazz bass; a kamancheh, a Persian bowed instrument; a pipa, a Chinese lute, which takes the place a zither might otherwise occupy in such music; a modular synthesizer; a battery ; a one-man brass section; and three folk singers who approach Near Eastern modes without actually using microtones.
In the book, the walking man leaves his house and leaves behind his wife to go “over there”, a place where he could find his son. He walks in wider and wider circles, first around his yard, then around his house and finally around his village. It is an allegory of mourning: we can retrace it in different ways, but never escape it.
The song cycle’s narration is far more opaque: Golijov laid out the hottest lines with little context. In Zankel, the projections of Mary Frank, like mural paintings by Chagall emptied of color, guided the public in a concrete and moving way.
Golijov’s score unfolds deliberately, blighting patience: Grief will give you all the time you need, then he’ll give you some more. The strings were playing with a wide tone. During “In Procession”, percussionist Shane Shanahan drummed with unhurried beats, as the townspeople walked up a hill behind the Walking Man, who had become their Pied Piper of Sorrows. In “Walking,” bassist Shawn Conley ripped off a walking bass line with a shuffling gait, and Dan Brantigan’s trumpet moaned like someone pushing through exhaustion. The synthesizer, played by Jeremy Flower, whistled an alien descant above the other instruments – a portal to another dimension.
“Falling” is so closely tied to the forces of Silkroad, who commissioned the piece, that it’s hard to imagine the trumpet part without Brantigan’s intense feeling and astonishing control. Or the kamancheh without the liquid tilt of Kayhan Kalhor. Or the pipa without the delicacy of Wu Man.
Sadly, so does The Walking Man, originally written for Chinese singer Wu Tong’s raw expressiveness and range, with notes so high they could make a tenor’s eyes water. opera. Yoni Rechter, a singer and musician with a long career in Israel, played the part in Zankel. He had a comforting fatherly presence, much like Tony Bennett, but vocally he was hesitant, imprecise and sometimes inaudible, even after dropping melodies down an octave. Biella Da Costa, as a Woman, sang with deep and moving feeling. Nora Fischer knowingly narrated the show as a half-man, half-office centaur.
“Falling” unfolded towards the end of the night, with improvised blues that awkwardly broke away from the musical fabric of the room. Fischer’s choice to utter the haunting lullaby that so memorably closes the cycle on his first recording of 2020 has diminished its impact.
In Jessica Cohen’s translation from the original Hebrew, Grossman renders legible a parent’s incomprehensible anguish: “It breaks my heart, my son, to think… that I have found the words. In Zankel, Golijov and Silkroad have found the music – speaking for all of us who are tired of grief.
fall out of time
Performed Friday at Zankel Hall, Manhattan.