Standing the Whole World on Its Ear
by Jeremy Eichler
from The New York Times
Atlanta Late one night a few weeks ago, Jesús Montoya, a Seville-born flamenco singer dressed in a velour track suit, stood resolutely on the stage of a darkened concert hall and, without warning, unleashed a riot of sound. His voice was raw and exhilarating as he swooped up and down Eastern-inflected scales, spinning endless improvisations. The words he sang spoke of 1930's Spain, but the sound felt like a primal wail from a more distant past, an ancient coloratura of longing.
The music filled the large, empty hall and poured into a recording booth at spine-tingling volume. Inside, an astonished German recording team from Deutsche Grammophon started fumbling with the consoles. But Osvaldo Golijov, the composer who had flown Mr. Montoya in to record this small but memorable part in his opera, "Ainadamar," sat calmly, smiling and nodding to himself. "Very good," he said.
Mr. Golijov (pronounced GO-lee-hoff) is exceedingly modest, but he 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. And they have been built with porous walls.
For Mr. Golijov, slipping sizzling flamenco improvisation into the middle of an opera is as natural as slipping a tenor aria in might have been for Verdi. Of course, classical composers have often turned to folk and popular styles for inspiration, but that has usually meant scrubbing the music clean of its grit. Mr. Golijov, 45, brings it directly into his compositions without transcription, without translation, without sapping its vitality through modernist abstraction. And flamenco is only the beginning. Klezmer, tango, fado, Sephardic song: Mr. Golijov speaks of sliding among genres the way other composers modulate to different keys, yet his works move brilliantly beyond collage to grab the ears with palpable force. They may also reflect the coming of age of a broader global sensibility within the secluded world of classical composition, and they suggest that the freshest voices may be hailing from the most distant shores.
And audiences are responding, less to this mash-up of genres in itself than to the profound honesty and sheer conviction at the music's core. Mr. Golijov's works jump off the stage with exuberant rhythm and passionate song; they swing seamlessly from the earthy to the sublime and tap rich veins of aching lyricism. Over the course of a few short years, and while still strikingly young, he has emerged as a major energizing force in a classical world desperately in need of a new vision.
"Ainadamar," or "Fountain of Tears," will have three performances beginning this afternoon in the Rose Theater as the first event in a monthlong festival at Lincoln Center, "The Passion of Osvaldo Golijov." Other institutions are lining up to present his work; he was named composer of the year for 2006 by Musical America; and he has won a rare commitment from Deutsche Grammophon, which will bring out the opera later this year, with Robert Spano conducting the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra.
Mr. Golijov lives with his family in Newton, Mass., but he was born and brought up in La Plata, Argentina, and studied for three years in Israel before moving to the United States in 1986. He has neatly trimmed dark hair specked with gray, and his eyes peer alertly through rimless glasses. Sometimes they narrow or close during a conversation, when he is thinking hard or searching for words. He speaks English with warm Spanish vowels, punctuated by a quick laugh that has a way of flashing up unexpectedly.
"I think I'm lucky that the audience is ready to enjoy what I want to say," he said over brunch in Atlanta a few weeks ago, adding with typical modesty: "I don't know how much longer it will last. I also don't know where I am going."
The conversation eventually turned to the problems of 20th-century classical music, and the powerful myth of progress that spurred composers to scale the heights of esotericism in their quest for the new, meanwhile leaving audiences baffled and restless in the valley below. Some of Mr. Golijov's favorite composers, like Luciano Berio and Gyorgy Kurtag, found ways out of this cul-de-sac, but Mr. Golijov realized early on that he was on a different path. He dabbled with atonal music, but said he could never bring himself to finish a straight 12-tone piece.
"I wanted to learn everything," he said, "but I also wanted to feel like what I was doing was something from me and not from my teachers, or from Vienna, so to speak. Part of it is acknowledging that as human beings, we are not philosophizing all the time. There are many realities. I think modernism only acknowledges one reality, which is here" he motioned toward his head "and that's fine. But in my music, I want to cover everything."
These ambitions required an alternative take on the classical tradition, which is also to say that Mr. Golijov's story rightfully begins in Argentina. It is the most European country in South America, once home to millions of immigrants from the Old World. It has a capital lined with Parisian-style boulevards and a concert hall, the Teatro Colón, built of marble imported from Italy.
But Argentina's closeness to Europe is paired with a very real physical distance that Mr. Golijov has found liberating. "There is a true and deep love for European literature, theater and so forth," he explained, "but you are so far away, you can reinvent it. Argentina gives you the freedom to reimagine everything."
This freedom was doubly vivid for Mr. Golijov, who grew up as part of Argentina's small but vibrant Jewish community. His family immigrated from Romania and the Ukraine in the 1920's, and his mother grew up in a religious home. Mr. Golijov studied Yiddish until the sixth grade, and the shtetl world and its destruction in the Holocaust are essential parts of his cultural inheritance. He drew from them early on with his Latin-klezmer inflected clarinet quintet, "The Dreams and Prayers of Isaac the Blind." A more recent piece, "Tekyah," was written to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. It ends in a tangle of raucous cries produced by a sextet of blasting shofars.
Peter Sellars, who directed the current production of "Ainadamar," hears in Mr. Golijov's music the rebirth of a tradition cut short by war.
"The high energy in Bartok and Stravinsky's music was this ethnic energy, a Jewish energy, a Gypsy energy, and it was precisely the energy that was literally exterminated in the death camps of Europe," Mr. Sellars said. "It is what has been missing from most European music for a while. It's that huge, unbearable melody of lament which is devastating and life-affirming at the same time. Which is, of course, a huge tradition of Jewish music, and which has been missing in action. Osvaldo has brought it back from Eastern Europe, through Israel, through Argentina. It is transformed but still wailing."
Mr. Golijov speaks of the traditional synagogues he attended in Argentina and Jerusalem as a primary musical model, less for their liturgical melodies than for the churning energy he heard emerging from the semi-chaos of a restless congregation engaged in a thousand varieties of prayer. "You enter," he said, "and somebody's screaming, somebody's mumbling, somebody's meditating, and you don't know how, but they suddenly start singing the same tune."
It's a model that he has brought to subjects far removed from the synagogue. The big break in his career was a commission from the Bach Academy in Stuttgart to write a new Latin American setting of the Passion for the Bach anniversary year of 2000. It might have seemed like a stretch, but after growing up in a Roman Catholic country and imbibing its music and its religious culture, Mr. Golijov said he had all the material he needed.
From the outset, he knew he had to set Jesus' story to music that would be accessible to those who hold the Gospel dear. So for his "St. Mark Passion" he welded together a dizzying array of popular Latin styles, from fevered Afro-Caribbean chanting and Cuban drumming to soaring Brazilian ballads and music for caterwauling choirs from Caracas. He even included a Brazilian capoeira dancer. The styles stream by in an exhilarating parade, building a giant emotional arc that ends with a transcendent setting of the Kaddish, the Jewish prayer for the dead.
The premieres in Stuttgart (in 2000) and Boston (2001) were triumphant, earning rapturous ovations and overnight stardom for Mr. Golijov. A few dissenters wondered about the Passion's originality as a concert work, given its heavy reliance on existing idioms. For his part Mr. Spano, who led the Boston performances and will return to conduct the work at Lincoln Center on Feb. 20 and 21, said he sensed something radical from the moment he saw the score.
"It was clear to me that he was doing something I've never encountered, which is to engage these traditions on their own terms," Mr. Spano said. "What's amazing is that he does that and always still sounds like himself. I don't know how. It is a mystery I will never understand."
The music forced Mr. Spano to learn what he called "a new language of gesture." He has now led the Passion many times, he said, but "it still never feels normal."
"Maybe I have a mystical streak," he added, "but I always feel like something otherworldly is going on."
The Passion raised high expectations for Mr. Golijov's next big work, and some critics felt that those expectations were not met when "Ainadamar" had its premiere in a student production at Tanglewood in 2003. Mr. Golijov is, famously, a last-minute composer, and he concedes that the work needed more time to grow. After the premiere, Mr. Sellars joined the creative team, and Mr. Golijov and his librettist, David Henry Hwang, overhauled the libretto and the score. The revised version played to critical raves in a new Sellars production last summer at the Santa Fe Opera.
It is an arresting work of history and reverie about the Spanish writer Federico García Lorca, his loves, his legacy and his murder at the hands of Franco's forces during the Spanish Civil War. But the starring role is that of Margarita Xirgu, an aging Spanish actress who once loved Lorca and has kept his memory alive for decades by performing his plays in exile in Uruguay. Her role in Atlanta was grippingly sung by Dawn Upshaw, who also sings it at Lincoln Center.
Nestled in the orchestra, two flamenco guitarists and a full battalion of flamenco percussion provide rippling energy throughout, whether from the foreground or by burbling away on the periphery, like the mumbling voices in Mr. Golijov's imagined synagogue. The middle section is built around a devastating confession scene, in which Lorca, written as a trouser role for mezzo-soprano, is forced at gunpoint to confess his supposed crimes.
Mr. Golijov here fashions a beautifully mysterious interlude: the marimba rustles like wind over an eerie field of muted strings. The orchestra is haunted by giant deep-breathing glissandos. Mr. Golijov uses common tonal chords in odd combinations to make the music sound at once strange and familiar.
There is a deep stream of emotion running through "Ainadamar," an unguarded openness that often wins over audiences but also, Ms. Upshaw said, makes it extremely difficult to sing.
"When I perform his music," she said, "I always feel like I'm using absolutely all of my resources. I'm totally exhausted at the end. You have to be as truthful and vulnerable as possible, and there's no place to hide. I don't know if he's even conscious of it, but he's tugging and pulling me into a new realm that I would have never imagined possible."
"Ainadamar" does not linger on the tragedy of Lorca's death. His vision of freedom lives on in Margarita Xirgu, and as she dies, she passes on her legacy to a student. In the final scene, memories of violence and suffering drift away as the three female voices come together in a deliriously lush Straussian trio. It is a bold theatrical gesture that Mr. Golijov makes without hesitation, a courageous leap for redemption, or for what Stendhal once called simply "the promise of happiness." Mr. Golijov would have it no other way.
"Transcendence is the most important thing," he said. "If there was not that, then nothing has meaning. Even the most irreligious artists have those moments. Think of Fellini at the end of '8½' or at the end of 'La Dolce Vita.' That's what art is about. It's at least the hope of hope. For 'no hope,' we have reality."