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Composer of spiritual communions: Argentine-born composer Osvaldo Golijov creates a movable, musical feast, spanning a range of styles and themes rooted in the human spirit.

Mark Twain, not one to mince words, once said of Richard Wagner's music, "It's not as bad as it sounds," and the same could be said of much contemporary music. It may be well constructed and intellectually relevant to its creator--indeed, the dissonance, atonality, serialism, and minimalism associated with modernism may be appropriate metaphors for the chaos, tedium, and emptiness of our times--but, ultimately, much so-called serious music written today remains inaccessible to the average listener. Too often it requires force feeding to get it down, and even then it doesn't settle well. Despite all the rituals--the commissioning fanfare, press play, premiere performances, and first recordings--few of these pieces have the staying power to not end up on the trash pile of forgotten compositions.

Fortunately for us all, the works of Argentine-born composer Osvaldo Golijov have not suffered this fate. As with the compositions of his countryman, Astor Piazzolla, whom he greatly admires, listeners to Golijov's music immediately respond to its driving energy, clean, melodic lines, intricate harmonies, and inventive references to a broad range of sources. It resonates, there is recall, it can be hummed, but most of all, one is touched by its integrity and sincerity because Golijov always speaks directly from the heart about essential issues rooted in the human spirit. In that sense, he shares much with so-called spiritualists--Arvo Part, Henryk Gorecki, Andrzej Panufnik, and Sofia Gubaidulina--whose musical offerings, profoundly inward looking, address and attempt to heal spiritual pain in our troubled times. Golijov, like Piazzolla, composes with a full awareness of the classicism of the great masters but, in an open-ended fashion, he employs popular elements: folk music, rock, jazz, Jewish liturgical and klezmer tunes, and dance rhythms associated with Latin America--tangos, sambas, rumbas. He writes big and small, one moment a brief, intimate lullaby, the next a ninety-minute oratorio for several choruses with unusual orchestration. His is a movable musical feast both literally and figuratively. He is often on the road meeting the needs of his global clientele, and his compositions draw inspiration from diverse places: Romania, Argentina, Russia, Israel, Brazil, Cuba, and the United States.

The setting in which creative people work often says a good deal about them, and Golijov's Boston, Massachusetts, studio is no exception. His workroom, on the basement level of an unremarkable apartment building on a side street, speaks of anonymity and, indeed, except when he is expressing himself musically, Golijov is quiet, modest, even shy. The sitting room where he receives guests is lined with books: Simon Schama's Rembrandt's Eyes, Translating Neruda, by John Felstiner. Old long-playing records, especially of folk music---Joan Baez, Mercedes Sosa--fill shelves, and there are photographs of heroes, not just composers like Mahler and Stravinsky, but also Kafka. (Above his piano he plans to add a large photograph of Piazzolla playing the bandoneon.) On one wall is a large map of Jerusalem in ancient times, on another a Picasso poster to go along with several books about this artist whom he admires. Much wall space is covered with artwork by his children--Yoni, Talia, and Anna--whose names he has combined as an acronym for his own publishing house, Ytalianna. A devoted family man, Golijov has filled his studio with snapshots of his kids and his wife, Sylvia, a choral conductor. In the adjoining workroom are his desk, synthesizer, and upright piano, upon which rest sheets containing the Emily Dickinson poem "How Slow the Wind," the text to an interview with Federico Fellini about light, and cut fragments from the Lamentations of Jeremiah. This eclectic mix of words belongs to three songs he was then polishing for an upcoming premiere performance by soprano Dawn Upshaw at the Spoleto Festival USA.

Friendly and informal, nonetheless Golijov admits to being tired. He had just the night before returned from Los Angeles, where he had been working on a film score. "It was my third trip to the coast in three weeks. I've been working with Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, the Mexican director of the smash hit Amores perros. He was one of the directors selected worldwide to do one of the eleven episodes for a project called 11'09"01, scheduled for release at the Toronto Film Festival on the first anniversary of the tragedy."

Working in film is not new for Golijov. In 2000 he collaborated with British director Sally Potter on the movie The Man Who Cried, a story of love between a young Jewish woman and a young gypsy man set in pre-World War II Europe. In the program notes for the soundtrack recording, Potter recalls listening to a London concert by the Kronos Quartet with a performance of the so-called Hungarian suicide song by Rezso Seres, "Gloomy Sunday," in an instrumental arrangement by Golijov. "I nearly fell off my chair. I decided there and then to ask Osvaldo to do the score."

Despite its star-studded cast--Christina Ricci, Johnny Depp, and Cate Blanchett--it is music that propels the film. "It's absolutely true," confirms Golijov. "She had a story in mind but knew music would be the driving factor. We built a map. It was important to find an aria from an opera that could be made into something Jewish so the melody would resemble one a father would sing to a daughter. We selected the aria `Je crois entendre encore,' from The Pearl Fishers, by Georges Bizet, against which in counterpoint I wrote a set of variations on a Yiddish lullaby, what became the song `Close Your Eyes.' On the soundtrack, both are performed by Italian tenor Salvatore Licitra, whom earlier Potter and I went to Teatro aha Scala to hear. The project also involved the Romanian gypsy band Taraf de Haidouks and the Kronos Quartet. All of us had worked together before. We sort of built the score in a highly collaborative manner. I like that. It brings out the best in me. I think music should be a reflection of every experience and emotion we have in life, from the very silly to the most serious, deeply felt things. It should color the whole range of human experience and speak to all areas of the human soul. That's what I find in the music I love: Beethoven and Bach, Mahler."

Golijov, who has been called "Kronos's Gil Evans," has done some thirty-five arrangements for this innovative string ensemble, including most of the selections on their recent recordings, Kronos Caravan (2000) and Nuevo (2002). The composer and chamber group first met in 1992 at the Tanglewood Music Center, the summer home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra in the Berkshire Mountains of western Massachusetts, where Golijov has worked as composer-in-residence for more than a decade. That year the Kronos performed Golijov's Yiddishbbuk, "the first work where my mature voice surfaces," opines Golijov. Kronos founder and first violinist David Harrington recalls the composer instructing them to "play it as though you are angry at God." Golijov has explained in program notes that the work takes its title from a collection of apocryphal psalms that Kafka read while living in Prague's Street of the Alchemists. Kafka described them as "a broken song played on a shattered cymbalon" and later added that "no one sings as purely as those who are in the deepest hell. Theirs is the song which we confused with that of the angels."

Yiddishbbuk was premiered earlier in the summer of 1992 by another ensemble with which Golijov also feels a close association. "If it is true, as Borges said, that in every man's life there is a moment that defines his existence, then meeting the St. Lawrence String Quartet was that moment for me," he writes. "I was, as usual, late with the piece and came to the first rehearsal, two weeks before the premiere, with only the first movement written. They told me they could make no sense of it. I was completely taken aback by their open mistrust, but ready to fight. I sang for a minute, and they all said, `OK, now we get it.' They grabbed their instruments and played that first movement. It felt like lightning. For the first time in my life I was listening to what I had written being played as vividly as I heard it in my head. I was frozen, speechless, and heard [first violinist] Geoff Nuttall ask, `Ozzie, when will you bring the rest of the piece?' (Ozzie? I just met this guy ten minutes ago, he said he didn't know what to make of my music, and now I am Ozzie?)."

To this day, many musicians in North America continue to call him "Ozzie," in marked contrast to the rather formal "Osvaldo" assigned to him at birth forty-three years ago by his parents, physician father Jose and pianist mother Ethel. She taught him to play her instrument and took him to hear operas at the Teatro Colon in Buenos Aires. The family lived in La Plata, his grandparents having emigrated in the 1920s from Russia on his father's side, Romania on his mother's.

"I always wanted to be a composer. I knew I couldn't say what I wanted to say as a performer. Every time I started playing something by someone else it would give me an idea for something of my own. The house was full of music of all kinds. I am simply an extension of what I heard at home: the classics, the Russians, tango, Jewish music. My father loved traditional tango, especially by Anibal Troilo, my mother preferred Piazzolla. I grew up listening to and speaking Yiddish, also Russian and Romanian, so later working with the gypsy band felt quite natural. At age ten, as an extension student, I began studies at the national music school founded by Alberto Ginastera. I also studied privately with composer Gerardo Gandini. I think the first piece I composed was a tone poem based on the Borges story "La casa de Asterion," twenty minutes long, for piano, double bass, and percussion. I was twelve. It went very well. I love Borges. Some years later I wrote another based on Borges's piece about Shakespeare, `Everything and Nothing,' a vocalise with guitar."

In 1983, Golijov left for Israel. "The experience of growing up with the military dictatorship wore me out. The Malvinas War was the final straw. I felt very lonely because many people were caught up in the nationalistic euphoria. I decided to explore my Jewish roots. I studied with Mark Kopytman at the Rubin Academy in Jerusalem, then in 1986 moved to Philadelphia, where I obtained my doctorate in music at the University of Pennsylvania, working with George Crumb. After that we moved here to Boston, where all of our kids were born."

During his first Tanglewood season, 1990, Golijov met Saville Ryan, who would become a dear friend and patron, as founder of the Omar del Carlo Fellowship for Latin American musicians working in residence at Tanglewood. "I was immediately taken by Osvaldo," Ryan recalls. "In a way I adopted him, even though he was not awarded our fellowship until the following year. In particular, I felt moved to give him my grandmother's Steinway because at the time he had no piano of his own. Then, in 1991 I commissioned him to write a piece for solo cello, which I wanted Chilean cellist Andres Diaz, another fellowship recipient, to premiere."

When Golijov finished the piece in July of that year, he wrote Ryan a letter, part of which reads: "So there it is, the transfigurated harmonies of Carlos Gardel's `Mi Buenos Aires querido' lying like stones over which the water of the cello's stream is running. I thought of the title `Omaramor' because it is very magical and mysterious, almost Portuguese. Is it too strong? I thought of `amor' in a very wide sense and yes, of how it is transformed, the way you transformed it into something embracing so many human beliefs, transcending a man and a woman and time too." Golijov was well aware that Ryan had named the fellowship after Argentine playwright Omar del Carlo, her fiance, who unexpectedly had suffered a fatal heart attack sixteen years earlier.

Golijov, endlessly prolific, is nonetheless a composer who likes to revisit, recycle, and repackage earlier musical ideas. Often he creates new versions with revised instrumentation or combines smaller-scale pieces into larger, more ambitious works. For example, during his 1990 Tanglewood residency, he wrote "Yiddish Ruakh" (Yiddish Spirit), first in a version for clarinet, piano, two horns, and three string trios, later just for clarinet, piano, and string trio, and finally for only clarinet and piano, into which he inserted fragments of a lecture on the dimensions of the Holocaust by Elie Wiesel. Golijov later wrote: "The music of `Yiddish Ruakh' consists of the clarinet playing a prayer of Rabbi Isaac the Blind and a vastly magnified Yiddish lullaby, which gradually evolves into a desperate song heard in the ghettos of Europe fifty years ago." Pointedly, he dated the piece 1933-90.

In 1994, Golijov went on to write an even grander piece for string quartet and clarinet, The Dreams and Prayers of Isaac the Blind. He again writes: "Isaac the Blind was the greatest Kabbalist rabbi of Provence, about eight hundred years ago, who dictated a manuscript saying everything in the universe, all things and events, are products of the combination of letters of the Hebrew alphabet. Their root is in a name, for the letters are like branches, which appear in the manner of flickering flames, mobile, yet nevertheless linked to the coal."

Golijov describes the movements of his epic work as if being written in three languages of the Jewish people: ancient Aramaic, Yiddish used in exile, and sacred Hebrew. The prelude and first movement deal with prayers of High Holidays, the second is based on a traditional dance tune, "The Old Klezmer Band," and the third movement consists of a version of "K'vakarat" (text from the prayer of Yom Kippur), an earlier work Golijov first wrote for the Kronos Quartet and cantor Misha Alexandrovich for the opening of the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D. C.

The Dreams and Prayers of Isaac the Blind won the Kennedy Center's Friedheim Award in 1995. The work is notable for its demanding passages for the clarinet. The EMI recording issued in 2001 features the St. Lawrence Quartet with clarinetist Todd Palmer, who discusses the work half humorously: "It's the cartage of instruments that is so demanding--five different clarinets: A, B-flat, C, bass, and basset horn. You have to have them all ready to go and play in an instant. Just when you've got comfortable with one size instrument, you change. It's thirty-five minutes long. The clarinet occupies a central role. It requires lots of stamina. I can't think of another composer who asks that of a clarinet player!"

In 1996, as a commission from Simon Rattle and the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group in England, Golijov expanded on ideas in "Omaramor" to compose "Last Round," a tribute to Piazzolla, who had died four years earlier. "He left us, in the words of the old tango, `without saying good-bye,'" wrote Golijov in his notes. "I composed `Last Round' [the title is borrowed from a short story on boxing by Julio Cortazar] as an imaginary chance for Piazzolla's spirit to fight one more time. The piece is conceived as an idealized bandoneon: the first movement the act of a violent compression of the instrument and the second a final, seemingly endless opening sigh (it is actually a fantasy over the refrain of Gardels `Mi Buenos Aires querido'). But it is also a sublimated tango dance. Two quartets confront each other, separated by the focal bass, with violins and violas standing up as in the traditional tango orchestra. The bows fly in the air as inverted legs in crisscrossed choreography, always attracting and repelling each other, always in danger of clashing, always avoiding it with the immutability that can only be acquired by transforming hot passion into pure patterns."

During 1995-96, Golijov also wrote a cantata, Oceana, a setting of texts by Pablo Neruda from his late cycle of poems, Cantos ceremoniales. The Oregon Bach Festival, based in Eugene and directed by Helmuth Rilling, commissioned the work. The premiere in the summer of 1996 featured the Schola Cantorum de Caracas, directed by Maria Guinand, and Brazilian vocalist Luciana Souza as soloist. The oratorio received an enthusiastic response from the audience and critics and earned for its composer Lincoln Center's Stoeger Prize for Contemporary Music. Perhaps more importantly, it established a close collaborative relationship among all of the participants, one destined to find expression in Golijov's next ambitious project.

The year 2000 also happened to be the 250th anniversary of the death of Johann Sebastian Bach. In anticipation of the event, Rilling, who also directs the Internationale Bachakademie Stuttgart, commissioned four very different composers (Tan Dun, Wolfgang Rihm, Sofia Gubaidulina, and Golijov) to undertake writing new Passions in homage to Bach's great choral works. Golijov was assigned that of St. Mark.

"Of course, as a Jew I had studied the Old Testament, but I had to go out and buy a Bible and read the account by St. Mark. Rilling didn't want just a Passion in Spanish. He wanted one that reflected the Christian experience in Latin America. I might have set Jesus' last days in Argentina, but there Catholicism is mostly a translation of a European tradition--Italy and Spain--but I thought the greatest transformation, transmutations occurred in places like Bahia and Cuba because there they created a whole new way of experiencing faith, a marriage of beliefs. I wanted to encompass as much as possible the tortuous history of Christianity in Latin America, both the good and the bad."

As the project began to take shape Golijov decided to set the action in real time, now in the streets of a poor urban neighborhood in Brazil. Further, he envisioned a presentation both aural and visual with theater and dance elements. As he later said in a pre-concert lecture at the Brooklyn Academy of Music last year, "Chorus members would be protagonists. They would play the people ... an ever-changing parade of characters ... with the story told in one continuous rush of voices, almost fragmentary, something of an homage to a tradition, but it also takes you to another place. J. S. Bach, the Lutheran Bach, is there in a terrifying way, but my libretto is in the vernacular with chanting and drumming from times of slavery in Brazil because that's the way news was transmitted."

In point of fact, Golijov actually created his libretto by clipping passages from the gospel in question but opted to close his work with the Kaddish, the Jewish prayer to the dead, sung in ancient Aramaic. He also wrote two soaring works for female soloists, "Agonia" (Agony), an aria of Jesus, and "Lua descolorida" (Colorless Moon), an aria of Peter. The text for the latter is a verse by Galician poet Rosaha de Castro: "I love her work," says Golijov. "Her poetry is very simple but heartfelt and pure, and the Galician language is so sweet, between Spanish and Portuguese. It melts in your mouth, sort of a Yiddish of Spain, sweet and flavorable, nostalgic."

As to instrumentation, Golijov prescribed a percussion section of drums, rattles, and rasps, a small string section of a half-dozen violins and cellos each, a rhythm section consisting of a guitar, piano, bass viol, and a brass section of two trumpets and two trombones. "I call it my ceviche instrumentation--like cooking with lemon juice without heat--without flutes, bassoon, nor French horns--no balm because it is a story that hurts."

In retrospect, Golijov admits to being uneasy when his work premiered in Stuttgart as part of the Passion 2000 festival, "although the performers carried more of the obligation. I think I was feeling more scared earlier when I was confronting fifty-five Christian singers in Venezuela, where we first rehearsed, with me as a Jew!"

But due to the extraordinary collaborative energy he was able to generate and through his careful notation and coaching, his remarkable treatment of an ancient story received twenty minutes of unbroken applause from normally reserved listeners and critical praise from all quarters.

Soon after, almost the same group of musicians presented the work in Caracas, then the Boston Symphony Orchestra, under Robert Spano, premiered it in Boston, with Richard Dyer in the Boston Globe anointing Golijov's Passion as "the first indisputably great composition of the twenty-first century."

Despite the widespread acclaim with its attendant demands for his time, Golijov somehow has managed to resume his normal schedule. As if making an oath to himself, before setting off on a series of composer-in-residencies, he says: "I will write music everyday." Golijov has been working on more songs for Dawn Upshaw and a violin concerto for Pamela Frank and the Minnesota Symphony, but the next big project will be a choral opera commissioned by the Boston Symphony Orchestra to be premiered at Tanglewood during the summer of 2003. "I do not have it all worked out, but I would like to do something with the tragedy of the Middle East, but I don't want to place it in a contemporary setting. I think I am going to try to make it as if coming from the Bible, dealing with this conflict between the sanctity of life that is desecrated because land becomes more sacred. It has to deal with that! ... I will listen to music from the Middle East. I can hear the sounds already: the lack of water, the desert, the choking quality, the brutality."

This genuinely good, gentle, humane man often speaks in terms of "painting with music." For him, composing is intensely visual. "In truth, I am a sensual person who loves good food, a good life, but when the world is in such a mess I feel one cannot ignore it. I would love to write a Falstaff or something just beautiful, uplifting, where the world is a great place, momentarily in balance, we'll see, but in the meantime, I feel this is what I should be doing."

Caleb Bach is a former teacher of Spanish and art history and a regular contributor to Americas.
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Date:Mar 1, 2003
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