When Lincoln Center’s Great Performers series planned a month-long celebration of the music of Argentine-American composer Osvaldo Golijov during January and February, they were following their usual procedure. Great Performers habitually schedules extended surveys of the works of innovative contemporary composers.
Composer Golijov’s range is exceptional. He builds pieces of enormous persuasiveness and integrity combining the music of medieval Spain, contemporary Latin America, Hebrew and Arab prayer, eastern European klezmer, and the western European classical tradition. He gets his ideas from the streets, the cabaret, the concert stage, the synagogue, and the mosque. And he adds politics to the mix, glorifying freedom of expression and opposing political tyranny; after all, Golijov (pronounced GO-lee-hoff) grew up in a society where people disappeared.
Lincoln Center scheduled a variety of Golijov’s music: song settings, chamber works, his opera “Ainadamar” (Fountain of Tears) and a performance of his “St. Mark Passion.” Additional programs dealt with the sources of his music.
The Golijov festival turned out to be an unexpectedly hot attraction, with insufficient seats to satisfy an eager public. Reacting to the difficulty of getting tickets, a Lincoln Center spokesman observed, “We’ve launched a rocket.”
That rocket comes to Rutgers’ Mason Gross School of the Arts on Tuesday, March 21. The program, to be held at the Nicolas Music Center on the Douglass College campus, includes both performances of Golijov’s music and a presentation by the composer. Earlier in the day, at 10:30 a.m., Golijov gives a free hour-long lecture to composition students, also open to the public, in Schare Recital Hall of the Marryott Music Building.
Golijov has been on the faculty at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts since 1991. He is also on the faculty of the Boston Conservatory. He has been composer-in-residence at the Spoleto USA Festival and holds an appointment as co-composer in residence at the Chicago Symphony. He has received a MacArthur Fellowship.
Three Golijov compositions are scheduled for the March 21 concert. Pianist Ying-Chieh Chen will play “Levante,” a fantasy based on a chorus from Golijov’s “St. Mark Passion.” Premiered in Boston in 2004, the five-minute fantasy has taken on an independent existence. The entire “Passion” is a 90-minute work.
In Golijov’s “Lua Descolorida” (“Colorless Moon”) soprano Bethany Reeves sings and Cristina Pato collaborates at the piano. The original version of the song was premiered in 1999. Golijov says the piece “defines despair in a way that is simultaneously tender and tragic. The musical setting is a constellation of clearly defined symbols that affirm contradictory things at the same time, becoming in the end a suspended question mark.” The words are in Gallego, the language of Spain’s Galicia region. In addition to its status as a separate piece, the composition has been incorporated into Golijov’s “St. Mark Passion,” and also exists in an instrumental version.
Golijov’s “Dreams and Prayers of Isaac the Blind” dates from 1994 and is the oldest piece on the Rutgers program. Golijov says: “Blindness is as important in this work as dreaming and praying. Blindness reminded me of how to compose music as it was in the beginning: An art that springs from and relies on our ability to sing and hear, with the power to build castles of sound in our memories.” The five-movement string quartet with clarinet soloist calls for five different clarinets. Performing the third movement of the piece at the March 21 concert are Stephen Miahki and Minjae Kim, violins; Yumi Oshima, viola; Jeffrey Shaw, cello; and Adam Berkowitz, clarinet.
Understanding the klezmer style is essential for playing the piece, says clarinetist Berkowitz. “It’s not enough to be able to play the notes on the page.” At the New York Festival, Todd Palmer was the clarinetist. Invited to learn the quintet, Palmer’s immediate reaction was to say, “I’m not sure if I’m your man. I’m a Methodist.” It took him the better part of a year to incorporate the klezmer style into his classical playing.
Berkowitz, 26, was attracted to klezmer as an undergraduate at Ithaca College, when he heard a performance by David Krakauer, renowned klezmer clarinetist. “That experience became one of the most important events in my musical life,” he says. “I had never heard music, or clarinet playing, like that before.” Subsequently, Berkowitz studied with Krakauer, who solos on the “Isaac the Blind” CD and introduced Berkowitz to the piece. Todd Palmer has also recorded the piece.
A variety of elements enter into playing klezmer clarinet, Berkowitz says. Primarily it is a matter of using ornaments liberally, he says. He surveys the array of klezmer ornaments: bending pitches, trills, off-beat accents, slides, and a species of sob or little choking sigh known as a “krekhts.” Many of them are notated in Golijov’s score.
Various elements attracted Berkowitz to klezmer. “I enjoy the spontaneity and creative elements,” he says. “However, even more than that, I’m drawn to the way I can get away from the written page. There’s a great deal of freedom in making music by listening, and having that level of communication with other people. Klezmer also helps satisfy a basic need that I have to feel spiritually connected to Judaism. I’m sure this feeling is even more intense because I can play the music and not just listen.” Berkowitz’s doctoral lecture/recital topic is the crossover of klezmer with classical music.
The clarinet quintet in which Berkowitz solos was the link that brought about Golijov’s visit to Rutgers. Hans Fisher, a Rutgers professor of nutrition, and his wife, Ruth, heard the piece at the Marlboro Festival in summer, 2005. “We were so enthused that I got on the Internet and learned that Kronos had recorded it with David Krakauer. We bought copies of the CD for ourselves and our three children.”
When the fall semester started at Rutgers, Fisher proposed to Yael Zerubavel, director of the Allen and Joan Bildner Center for the Study of Jewish Life at Rutgers, that Golijov be invited. Bildner liked the idea and teamed up with Rutgers’ Mason Gross School of the Arts. The project ended in the lap of Rufus Hallmark, chairman of the Mason Gross music department at the time. Hallmark, a singer who habitually attends the Santa Fe Music Festival, knew that Golijov’s opera “Ainadamar” received its first fully-staged performance in Santa Fe and was enthusiastic about bringing Golijov to Rutgers.
The sport of swimming laps provided a curious backdrop for the Golijov visit. After giving his son, David, the “Isaac the Blind” recording, Fisher learned that David, a Boston oncologist, knew Golijov from the Newton, Massachusetts, swimming pool where they both do laps. David, who graduated from Philadelphia’s Curtis Institute, had never discussed music with his fellow-swimmer and had no idea that Golijov was a composer.
The lap swimmers’ network continued. When Hallmark retired as chairman of the music department, Antonius Bittmann took over. And Fisher, who swims with Bittmann in the Cook College pool, pursued the matter informally with him in the Cook locker room.
Fisher eventually met Golijov at the Newton pool, where he swam one day with his grandson. The child pointed out Golijov, and Fisher introduced himself in the locker room. “We were both undressed,” Fisher remembers. “We had a brief, casual conversation.”
Golijov, 45, was born in La Plata, Argentina, about 80 miles southeast of Buenos Aires, to an orthopedist father and a pianist mother. Both were on the faculty of the National University of La Plata. Golijov’s grandparents emigrated from eastern Europe in the 1920s; his father’s family from Ukraine, and his mother’s family from Romania. La Plata at the time had an active Jewish community, and Golijov studied Yiddish until sixth grade.
Argentina is known as one of Latin America’s most Europeanized countries. However, Argentina’s acceptance of European culture is prone to going off on tangents, according to Golijov. “There is a true and deep love for European literature, theater, and so forth,” he told Jeremy Eichler of the New York Times, “but you are so far away, you can reinvent it. Argentina gives you the freedom to reimagine everything.”
“My mom was a very good pianist,” Golijov told Alicia Zuckerman for Nextbook Website. “Because of her, I studied piano. I loved Bach and still love it, and Schubert and Mozart and Beethoven, and all of that. When I was 10, and my mom took me to see Astor Piazzolla, it was a shattering moment in my life because — here was a real, living person, not someone born 200 years ago in Vienna, who integrated all that I loved from Bach to Bartok, and sublimated the sound of the streets of Argentina into music: the way people talk from the side of their mouth just to show how macho they are. I could hear everything at the same time, Bach and the streets. And that’s something that I still remember with goose bumps.”
At age 23 Golijov left for Jerusalem, where he soaked up Arab and Hebrew musical idioms. When he was 26, Golijov came to the United States and studied with George Crumb, earning a Ph. D. at the University of Pennsylvania. As a fellow at Tanglewood, he studied with Oliver Knussen. “I wanted to learn everything,” he says, “but I also wanted to feel like what I was doing was something from me and not from my teachers.”
Golijov’s international recognition exploded at the millennium. Helmut Rilling, organizer of a festival in Stuttgart, Germany, commemorating the 250th anniversary of J. S. Bach’s death in 2000, commissioned four new Passions, with different points of view, and invited Golijov to contribute a Latin-American oriented Passion. The other invited composers were Wolfgang Rihm, Sofia Gubaidulina, and Tan Dun. Performance of Golijov’s “St. Mark Passion” evoked a 30-minute ovation.
As performed during the New York festival, the Golijov Passion was musically and visually compelling. A background glow of monochromatic color corresponded to mood-shifts in the music. Capoeira dancing, borrowed from the Brazilian street, and the movement of vocal performers and percussionists kept the eye engaged. The shifting musical idioms culminated in the ancient Hebrew prayer for the dead. Among the unconventional musical aspects of the piece was the use of pop singing, with microphone, as well as unamplified voices.
Golijov’s music incorporates an unusual poise. The individual elements retain their separateness, rather than being homogenized. In much the same way, Golijov remembers the separate elements of his life, recalling them in detail with modesty and wonder. Looking back on growing up in Argentina, he told Justin Davidson of Newsday, “I come from La Plata. I went to the only conservatory where they can steal a double bass and nobody notices.”
The Music of Osvaldo Golijov, Tuesday, March 21, 7:30 p.m., Mason Gross School of the Arts, Nicholas Music Center, 85 George Street, New Brunswick. Concert of music by Argentinian-American composer Osvaldo Golijov. 732-932-7511.