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Osvaldo Golijov: The Voice of the Global Village


Osvaldo Golijov [photo by Sara Evans]


IF COMPOSERS ARE SUPPOSED TO speak of or to their era, then Osvaldo Golijov may just be the quintessential man for our time.

This isn’t to say that Golijov writes topical music tied to current events; for example, he hasn’t, to my knowledge, written anything directly addressing 9/11 in the manner of his programmatically minded peer, John Adams (who did so in his latter-day requiem, On the Transmigration of Souls).

Rather, Golijov’s musical concerns are ours: they address and reflect more broadly the world in which we live, and in particular the musical world we inhabit, one that is always expanding in range while shrinking in size, in a sense recapitulating the paradox inherent in the term “global village.”

Born December 5, 1960, Golijov grew up in an Eastern European Jewish immigrant household in La Plata, Argentina, where he was raised surrounded by classical chamber music, Jewish liturgical and klezmer music, and the new tango of Astor Piazzolla. From a young age, the seeds were planted for a multicultural outlook perfectly timed to take advantage of the late twentieth century opening to cultural exchange, when the tools for such exchange and experimentation became commonplace.

After studying piano and composition, Golijov moved to Jerusalem in 1983, where he continued his musical studies and absorbed the colliding musical traditions of that multicultural city and its surroundings. Upon moving to the United States in 1986, Golijov earned his PhD at the University of Pennsylvania, where he studied with George Crumb, and was a fellow at Tanglewood, working with Oliver Knussen.

“Tanglewood is the place that completely changed my life, in so many senses,” Golijov, who lives in Newton, Massachusetts, says. “First of all, it was the first time my music was played with respect and care, and it was the place in which I felt for the first time that people I admired started to believe in my voice.”

In the last decade, Golijov has established a reputation as one of the premier composers of our age, and one with a rich, seemingly inexhaustible musical vocabulary. In part, this is undoubtedly the chance result of his multicultural, cosmopolitan biography — Latin meets Jewish meets the Middle East, built upon a firm foundation of European classicism. But equally significant is the distinctive voice that emerges through the variety of styles — the klezmer inflections of The Dreams and Prayers of Isaac the Blind, the Arabic and Sephardic wailing of his Ayre song cycle, the flamenco melisma of Ainadamar (a one-act opera depicting the last days of Spanish poet and playwright Federico García Lorca), and the hot Afro-Cuban and bossa nova stylings percolating beneath his La Pasión según San Marcos (St. Mark Passion) — a voice that rings out with a coherent vision, uniting all these seemingly disparate cultural influences. (That voice often belongs, literally, to his favorite soprano, Dawn Upshaw, who seems to have been put on earth to sing Golijov’s music.)

Writing in the New York Times, classical music critic Jeremy Eichler said Golijov is “one of the few composers today whose works are profoundly shifting the geography of the classical music world, dumping the old Eurocentric map with its familiar capitals and trading routes in the dustbin of history. In Mr. Golijov’s universe, the pristine temple of art music has opened branch offices in places like Argentina, Brazil, Jerusalem and an imagined Eastern Europe.”

As classical music’s answer to Paul Simon, Golijov is not unaware of the polyglot characteristic of his work. “Messiaen used to see colors,” he says. “I think I am a little hypersensitive to the emotional charge that each of these idioms has. Each has its own emotional world that is very, very strong. You play with the combinations when necessary, but you avoid what doesn’t belong in a particular piece. The reason why I explore all these vocabularies is emotion is the most important thing.”

Golijov’s compositions stand apart from many of his more academic- or experimental-minded peers in that they emphasize melody and recognizable folk forms. If this has hurt his reputation somewhat with a few critics — although he is overwhelmingly a critics’ darling — it has undoubtedly endeared him all the more to listeners, who can easily grab onto the kernels of his folk melodies and get swept along for a joyous ride through surprising twists and turns of his intricate musical structures.

While Golijov often roots his pieces in traditional forms, the visceral impact of his musical juxtapositions can often be as intellectually jarring as atonal music, the difference being that for Golijov beauty is still a musical value worth upholding above all.

Here in the Berkshires, we’re fortunate to count Golijov as a near-perennial musical presence, either at Tanglewood — where in recent years concertgoers have been treated to his “Three Songs for Soprano and Orchestra,” the St. Mark Passion, and to the world premiere of Ainadamar — or at one of the other music series in the region: his How Slow the Wind song cycle, commissioned by Close Encounters with Music, premiered at Ozawa Hall.

The Avalon Quartet plays Tenebrae by Golijov on Saturday, May 7, 2011, at the Mahaiwe in Great Barrington, Mass., as part of the Close Encounters With Music series. The concert will also include Death and the Maiden by Schubert and Steve Reich’s landmark composition Different Trains.

“I’m lucky in the sense that this is the time in which people that have my kind of history are a significant part of the world: immigrants,” he says, in heavily Argentine-inflected English. “In the times of Bartók, he talks about villages three miles away in which they make shoes in completely different ways. Today, with cellphones in Africa and Latin America and New York and the Internet, it’s a whole different world. And I think I’m representative of that world.”

This article originally appeared in the July 2006 issue of Berkshire Living.

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