Daily Bow: The Multiplicity of Osvaldo Golijov



Daily Bow LogoI remember the first time I heard the music of Osvaldo Golijov. I was at a Houston Symphony concert that kicked off with the Argentinean composer’s sizzling “Last Round,” complete with the standing soloists. I went on to become completely consumed by the piece, particularly in its chamber nonet form–I listened to it night and day, walking to class, sitting at home, even checking out the score from the library to get a look at the music. Later on in my time at Rice, I had the opportunity to play another of Golijov’s pieces, this time a duet for cello and marimba called “Mariel.” This piece fascinated me too, and this reaction to the magnetism of Golijov’s music is not a unique one. It seems that everyone who hears his music is completely drawn into this lush, exotic, and hypnotizing sound world–a world that sounds so entirely like the man who composed the music. Golijov’s music has been attracting more and more listeners as symphonies, chamber ensembles, and individual players have championed his work and moved it further into the spotlight, and a recent performance of his works at at the Harvard Hillel  by the St. Lawrence String Quartet gave listeners a rare chance to hear the composer expound upon his music and the multicultural influences that created this engrossing sound.

Osvaldo Golijov grew up in La Plata, Argentina and has studied and lived in both Israel and the United States. Since 1991, he has been the Loyola Professor of Music at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts. His partners at the Harvard Hillel, the St. Lawrence Quartet are, of course, renowned for their commitment to contemporary repertoire, and they have a longstanding relationship with the music of Osvaldo Golijov. During the April 2nd concert at the Harvard Hillel in Cambridge, Massachusetts, the quartet played the composer’s “Yiddishbbuk” and a movement from “Qohelet.” The performance was followed by a conversation with the composer, quartet, and the audience that served to give the audience a glimpse of the composer’s musical, emotional, and religious logic. Golijov’s music holds such fascination for audiences as a product of its multifaceted influences, ranging from tango to Klezmer to Jewish mysticism.

The 51-year-old composer, a man of Jewish Argentinean upbringing, cites his seminal “Yiddishbbuk” for string quartet as a formative work in the process of “finding himself” as a composer. The work is a product of close collaboration with the St. Lawrence String Quartet, with whom he has worked since the early 1990’s. The name “Yiddishbbuk” is derived from an apocryphal book of Psalms; its few remains are hidden in the notebooks of Franz Kafka. According to Golijov, each of the piece’s three movements “is a little bit of the Jewish 20th century,” titled by the initials of Jewish cultural figures. The movements themselves are evocative of different facets of the Jewish experience. The first movement honors the memory three children killed at Terezin (whose art and poetry appear in I Never Saw Another Butterfly); the second movement commemorates author Isaac Bashevis Singer, whose stories fueled much of the rhythmic content of Golijov’s work; and the third movement honors composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein. Golijov’s conversation with the audience served to illuminate more than a simple program note might, though–going beyond the background of the composition to discuss hidden nuances. For instance, he described attempts to capture “the flickering of the Jewish candles” in the second movement, which he achieved by demanding an especially aggressive vibrato from the musicians. In the words of St. Lawrence’s cellist Christopher Costanza, “conventional notation doesn’t do the trick.”

Golijov speaks of himself as a “gestural composer,” and performers with experience with his music will agree–the first performance and tempo indication in “Mariel” for cello and marimba, for example, is “like an asteroid.” Just as he speaks of a looser connection between musical gesture and notation, he speaks of a loose but important connection between his Jewish heritage and the interpretation of his music. “The idea,” he says, “is to transcend the origins” of his music–an understanding of Jewish culture and music is not a prerequisite for an emotional connection to his music. Above all, the emphasis is on drawing from one culture or another to better articulate universal human feelings and experiences–and, according to Golijov, some cultures have explored different aspects of the human soul more deeply than others, leading him to select certain specific influences when he wishes to evoke a particular emotion from the human palette. He cites his preference for using Spanish flamenco flavors when infusing his music with despair as an example.

While some may characterize Golijov as a Jewish composer or an Argentinean composer, it is clear that to cast his music in a single mold would focus on the incongruity of the elements of his music, not the harmony (what would tango music be doing in Jewish music?). Golijov instead sees his music as a “dialogue” between elements of various cultures–a musical give and take that creates a rich tapestry of influences and sonic world all its own. After all, as Golijov says, “there are so many ways to say, ‘To be, or not to be.” However he chooses to say it, though, one thing is always certain: the fascination of Golijov’s music speaks loud and clear.




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