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This article by Elaine Strauss was prepared for the March 15, 2006
issue of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
He’s Hot, He’s Argentinian, and He’s Here
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
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
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
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
"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
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
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