Osvaldo Golijov
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Musical America 2006 Composer of the Year profile

Musical America 2006 Composer of the Year profile
by Alex Ross
from Musical America

This 45-year old Argentinian is one of the hottest composers on the classical scene today, with a multicultural idiom that connects instantly to a wide range of audiences. A festival of his music will be presented at Lincoln Center in early 2006, and Deutsche Grammophon has begun releasing a series of CDs of his works.

Osvaldo Golijov is a composer who has relinquished control. Throughout the 20th century, composers have sought to systematize every aspect of their creative process: They have devised arcane systems to predict what note should come next, and have mimicked the vocabulary of science and mathematics. "Justify every note" is a favorite academic orthodoxy. Composition has been designated a sort of stonewalled fortress in which the sensitive soul stands fast against the onslaught of the vulgar and the low. The two canonical heroes of 20th-century music, Schoenberg and Stravinsky, had little in common except an ever-deepening devotion to the idea of control—what Wallace Stevens called "rage for order."

Golijov follows a different path. He prizes spontaneity, earthiness, rough corners, raw emotion. He is not one to sit at a rehearsal with the score open on his lap, protesting the slightest deviation from the text. Often, he invites musicians to assist in the realization of his vision. When he works with folk musicians and others of non-classical training, he lets the composition become, in part, a souvenir of an improvisation. It may appear that Golijov is little more than a host of a party where various types of music are carousing. He is much more than that. But he has chosen to conceal his personality within his material, rather than make a show of his mastery.

In the first years of the new century, with the spread of such works as Yiddishbuk, La Pasión Según San Marcos, Ainadamar, and Ayre, Golijov has emerged as one of the leading figures in contemporary music. He is a model of the composer liberated from theory, engaged with society, pragmatic in his approach. The one problem with celebrating him—as Robert Spano and the Atlanta Symphony, Dawn Upshaw, Kronos, the St. Lawrence String Quartet, and others will do in a large-scale Golijov festival at Lincoln Center this winter ("The Passion of Osvaldo Golijov"), in conjunction with a series of recordings on the Deutsche Grammophon label—is that putting him on a pedestal betrays the humility and humanity of his vision.

Golijov was born in Argentina, in 1960. His parents, professors at the University of La Plata, came from Russian-Jewish and Rumanian-Jewish backgrounds. The synthesis of South-American and Jewish heritage is probably the bedrock of Golijov's style; it informs his potent mix of exuberant dance rhythm and lamenting melos, although it's hazardous to say which element is Jewish and which is Latino in origin. The composer spent part of his youth in Jerusalem, then moved to the United States to study with George Crumb at the University of Pennsylvania. His first works absorbed the revalent languages of the postwar avantgarde, and a high degree of dissonance persists in such early works as Yiddishbuk, for string quartet (beautifully recorded by the St. Lawrence String Quartet for EMI). Yet, even with inherited material, Golijov showed early on a knack for etching clear, brilliant images, for finding the specific in the abstract.

The turning point of Golijov's career came in 1996, when he went to the Oregon Bach Festival for a performance of his choral work Oceana. The buoyant lyricism of that work excited the conductor Helmuth Rilling, who subsequently commissioned Golijov to set the text of the St. Mark Passion for a millennial festival of "new Passions" that was held in Stuttgart in 2000. The other composers who participated were at that time rather better known than Golijov: Wolfgang Rihm, Sofia Gubaidulina, and Tan Dun. But it was the St. Mark Passion that set off an un-German frenzy in the audience. It went on to conquer audiences in Boston, Brooklyn, Los Angeles, and Atlanta. Robert Spano, who has led most of the work's performances, will bring it to Lincoln Center in February.

The St. Mark Passion intermingles various traditions and genres: Brazilian samba, Afro-Cuban drumming, the cawing choral sound of the Schola Cantorum of Caracas, synagogue cantillation. Yet it is a work of relentless continuity, moving without pause toward a softly overpowering epiphany—the "Kaddish," sung for Jesus at the end. This same art of seamless fusion distinguishes Golijov's opera Ainadamar, which tells of the Platonic relationship between the poet Federico García Lorca and the actress Margarita Xirgu, and also his latest major work, the song cycle Ayre, which Dawn Upshaw has recorded for DG. (Both works will be performed at Lincoln Center.) Ayre, based on Arabic, Hebrew, Sephardic, and Spanish songs, is perhaps Golijov's most daring amalgamation to date: It is a fully worked out composition that could also double as a pop album. The composer is now at work on a concerto for Yo-Yo Ma, which the Boston Symphony will present in March 2006. He promises a grand chaconne—fittingly enough, since the chacona, a lewd Afro-Caribbean dance that was subsumed into European form, is the perfect symbol of Golijov's world.

In person, Golijov is easygoing, unassuming, self-effacing. He is often critical of his own music, preferring to wax enthusiastic about the music of others. When I saw him at the Santa Fe Opera Festival last summer, at the time of the premiere of a revised version of Ainadamar, he seemed more eager to talk about John Adams's Doctor Atomic ("like late Verdi," he said). Golijov has received much publicity, but he has not gone out of his way to cultivate it. A couple of years ago, after being overwhelmed by the St. Mark Passion, I approached him with the idea of making him the subject of a magazine profile. "I'm not good enough," he said.

But he is. Classical music is in dire need of composers like him. All imaginable techniques have been investigated and catalogued; the music of the world has splintered into innumerable subcultures; popular music has spawned dozens of art genres of its own. What we need now are connecting minds to make sense of the teeming possibilities—composers who can strike up, in their own distinctive voices, conversations with the multitude. For Musical America's Composer of the Year, that task is second nature.