Osvaldo Golijov
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Following a lyrical journey

Following a lyrical journey
by Justin Davidson
from Newsday

Argentinian composer Osvaldo Golijov has arrived, with a festival of his music at Lincoln Center

Maybe, on your travels, you've been stopped by the harrowing, melodious wail of a street-corner singer, or the tart twang of strings being plucked in an unfamiliar tuning. And maybe the music's very foreignness plumbed some tender region of your memory, provoking a wave of unfocused yearning, or wistfulness for experiences you never had. Strange music can release strong juices. Another culture's everyday soundtrack resonates with your inner world.

Any resourceful musician knows how to pack allusions to several continents into a multicultural sachet: slap an African rhythm on a Christmas carol, add a sitar and voila. But only a composer with an exquisite ear can weave these scattered kinds of music together and provoke that intimate and novel shock. The bitter yawp and percussive guitars of flamenco run through Osvaldo Golijov's opera "Ainadamar," not just as an exotic spangle or a scenic stroke but as a touchstone of excitement.

The Argentinean-born Golijov is 45, a little young to be monumentalized as one of our era's great composers, but it's tempting to do so anyway, and Lincoln Center has provided an excuse. The New York premiere of "Ainadamar," which takes place there Jan. 22, opens a festival devoted to his music that includes performances of all his large-scale work. It covers, too, a series of journeys, some biographical, some imagined, from the klezmer fantasy of his clarinet quintet "Yiddishbuk" to the raucous Caribbean festival atmosphere of "La Pasión según San Marcos," to the exuberant transfiguration of Mediterranean folk songs in "Ayre."

A couple of months ago, at the end of two grueling days that the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra spent recording "Ainadamar" for the classical label Deutsche Grammophon, someone asked Golijov if he was happy. "Are you kidding?" he said. "I come from La Plata, I went to the only conservatory where they can steal a double bass and nobody notices — and now DG is making a record of my opera. How could I not be happy?" He is not inclined to mount any pedestals just yet.

Story of "Ainadamar"

Golijov belongs to no mainstream, and he has not been sucked into any bog of orthodoxy or convention. He is the most fearless living composer I know, striding into expanses of sentiment and ravishing melody, then just as easily spinning out passages of anger and clamoring rhythm. "Ainadamar" is about violence — specifically, the assassination of the Spanish poet Federico García Lorca in 1936 at the hands of Franco's Fascists — and Golijov faces it with a certain aesthetic glee. An undercurrent of joy runs beneath even the most macabre moments.

Dawn Upshaw sings Maria Xirgu, the Spanish actress who was García Lorca's collaborator and friend. Golijov has given the role of García Lorca to a mezzo-soprano, Kelley O'Connor, who has a peaty soulfulness reminiscent of some Latin American folk singers: Mercedes Sosa comes to mind. In the last scene, three female voices — Xirgu near death, García Lorca from beyond it and the future in the form of the young actress Nuria — drift toward the final curtain in a cloud of billowing, brocaded music that evokes the end of Strauss' "Rosenkavalier." It's a different flavor of melancholy from the hoarse laments of flamenco, but the spirit has not changed.

There is, of course, a long tradition in classical music of invoking existing styles. Castanets make an appearance in "Carmen" to suggest Andalusian allure. Bartók scraped the mud off peasant music and shined it for the concert hall. Stravinsky cut and pasted hints of Russian folk songs, Italian baroque music, ragtime and a range of other sources. But Golijov brings the musicians themselves onstage and lets them cut loose. Flamenco singer Jesus Montoya launched into such elaborate improvisations during the recording in Atlanta that he threw off the producer's timings. "That way it's not metaphoric," Golijov said. "The music retains its affective power."

Varied toolbox

The variety in the composer's toolbox might suggest that he bangs styles together for the sheer pleasure of incongruity. But that's not it. "Different kinds of music provoke different emotional reactions in me, so I use them accordingly," Golijov said. "It's what other composers did with keys. Mahler began his Second Symphony in C minor, which signified turmoil, and moved to E major, which represented paradise. People may not hear the connotations of going from C minor to E major, but they'll hear it if I modulate from flamenco to Strauss."

In the end, it's not the technique but the sensibility that distinguishes Golijov. He has an unfakeable love of lyricism and a knack for the big moment that rocks the house. There is a streak of show biz in the man from La Plata, and the classical music world, locked in the insular pursuit of sublimity, never needed it more.