Joyful Noise

Hailed by critics, loved by audiences-Argentine-born composer Osvaldo Golijov makes music for the world stage, and more than two decades ago, he found his home at Holy Cross.

By Daniel J. Wakin

 

Amid a glorious cacophony of samba drumming and surrounded by high school students, Osvaldo Golijov claps and bobs up and down, recognizable in his rectangular glasses, open-necked shirt and dark jacket. It is an early November day in a midtown Manhattan rehearsal studio, and Golijov has joined a practice session for the upcoming Carnegie Hall performance of his "Pasión según San Marcos," or "Passion according to St. Mark," the musical work that thrust this Jewish-born, Argentine-raised, Jesuit-nurtured composer into the forefront of the classical music world.

Several months later, he recalled the session in an interview. "I was jumping with them," he says, speaking in the lightly accented English and engaging tones that have charmed many an impresario. "I love it. The misconception in North America and Europe is that these rhythms are just party rhythms, but it's actually very spiritual. Samba rhythms come from sacred music, and you get swept up by them."

Spiritual? Yes, but the rhythms are inescapably popular, in the sense that not many serious composers of contemporary sacred music would include them in a musical passion. But in fact, in many of his works, Golijov uses elements of tango, Brazilian ballads, Afro-Cuban jazz, Spanish folk music, flamenco, klezmer, salsa, slave chants, modern-day minimalism and the formalism of Bach to forge an individual creative voice.

Golijov, 52, is one of those rare composers who draw in audiences, especially the younger crowd cherished by presenters, while at the same time winning positive reviews from music critics and the loyalty of the music executives who program concert series and plan record albums.

Since the "Pasión" burst into view in 2000, Golijov has collected many an honor. He was granted a MacArthur "genius" award in 2003. He seems to have served as a composer in residence at just about every major music festival, including Lincoln Center's Mostly Mozart Festival, the first composer to be so honored at the arts complex-which gave him his very own festival in 2007. Major orchestras grant him commissions and give his music pride of place. The New York Philharmonic, for example, is playing one of his works at the gala concert to open its season in September.

His latest honor was an appointment to the Richard and Barbara Debs Composer's Chair for 2012-13 at Carnegie Hall, which gives him scope to play a role in shaping Carnegie's season. Three concerts are dedicated to him. The St. Lawrence String Quartet, long associated with Golijov, performed several of his works in an evening that included a conversation with the composer on Feb. 4. On May 17, two of his vocal works will be included on a program featuring the Crash Ensemble, an Irish group, and the soprano Dawn Upshaw, a muse and long-time collaborator of Golijov. On March 10, the centerpiece of his residency, a sold-out performance of "La Pasión," featured members of the Schola Cantorum de Venezuela and high school singers from the New York City area. (Hear the performance in its entirety at holycross.edu/hcm/carnegiehall, as part of the Carnegie Hall Live series, a partnership with WQXR and American Public Media.)

Golijov is doing double duty at Carnegie. Every year the hall presents a themed festival. The subjects have included China, Japan, Berlin, black American culture and Leonard Bernstein. In 2012-2013, the theme is "Voices from Latin America." Golijov was chosen as one of the four organizers and helped Carnegie choose the other three: Chucho Valdés, the Cuban jazz pianist; Gilberto Gil, the Brazilian singer-songwriter and a former culture minister; and Gustavo Dudamel, the Venezuelan star conductor who leads the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

It is an eclectic lineup, one in keeping with Golijov's artistic nature, and a conscious decision to reflect the power of popular musical forms.

"He's somebody every major organization considers absolutely at the top, one of the most important composers of our day," says Clive Gillinson, the executive and artistic director of Carnegie Hall. "He's got a really unusual ability to both absorb things that are all about the culture from which he comes-that is, both Latin American culture and Jewish culture-and use them in a way that is absolutely essentially him."

All of this is the Osvaldo Golijov that the classical music world, centered in New York, London, Berlin and Paris, knows best-along with a troubling series of missed deadlines and even cancelled commissions. What is completely unknown- including, until recently, to this writer, who chronicles the global classical scene for The New York Times-is Golijov's rootedness in Holy Cross.

Golijov is the Loyola Professor of Music at the College, only the fifth faculty member to have the title since it was established in 1991. For 23 years, he has taught Holy Cross students elements of film composition, song-writing, the music of Latin America and other courses, as well as advised on senior theses and involved students in performances of his work, namely 16 of them for a rendering of his "Passion" at Lincoln Center in 2007.

Kris Zelesky '10 was one of that handful of student choristers. The rehearsal period was intense. "For those couple of weeks, the last thing we were were singers," says Zelesky, a freshman at the time. "We faced a challenge: to tell the story of Jesus' death as it was lived, felt and embodied by the people of Latin America. In a true Holy Cross liberal arts experience, we were theologists, historians, sociologists, before we were choristers. We had to understand life, death, dying, struggle and the Spanish words that needed to come alive in our score."

During his senior year, Zelesky (who now works as a recruitment consultant at Michael Page in New York) had the chance to work with Golijov once again-this time, in the classroom. "I took Music of Latin America with Osvaldo to see the musical influence of the passion, and understand the technicalities of bossa nova, the rumba and flamenco," he says. "I look at Osvaldo as my two towering bookends at Holy Cross, the first as a freshman and the second as a senior."

Golijov's close connection to Holy Cross fits right in with his insider-outsider upbringing as a Jew in Catholic Argentina and as a melder of the disparate worlds of high art music and the rhythms of the people.

He followed an unexpected route to the College.

Golijov was raised in La Plata, about 35 miles southeast of Buenos Aires. His father, a physician, came from a family of secular Jews from Russia. His mother, a piano teacher, descended from orthodox Romanian Jews. The young Osvaldo started piano lessons at age 5. "Music was in the house," Golijov says. "My mother practiced all the time and had students at home. Even the local string quartet would rehearse at my place because we had a piano and a nice living room."

By 8 or 9 he began putting notes on paper, and soon was composing for the choir in temple, where he absorbed Jewish musical traditions. "It was clear to me that what I liked most was to invent new things rather than finishing the sonata that I had to learn," he says. The boy composer wrote "little pictorial pieces," like the evocation of an old man in the rain. "The inspiration was always an image, rather than an abstract form," he adds. The practice carried on into maturity. "As a student I had serious problems, when I was given purely technical things, like an exploration in dodecaphony. It was not easy for me to do them unless I had a narrative to it or an image, to give what I consider life to the music.

"Music became more a language of symbols," Golijov says. "Narrative is made up of a constellation of symbols."

He attended the Gilardo Gilardi Conservatory of Music, switched to the national university and then transferred to the Rubin Academy of Music in Jerusalem, where he spent three years soaked in the sounds of the three Abrahamic faiths: the Muslim call to prayer wafting from minarets, the mystical chanting of Orthodox Christians and the music of Sephardic Jews.

Golijov says he went to Israel because he did not feel himself developing as a musician and did not see Argentina's dictatorship coming to an end soon.

In Argentina, "being a Jew was even harder," he says. "There was a great disproportion of Jews being taken and 'disappeared.' I wanted to be a first class citizen. I wanted to explore my Jewish roots. I wanted to feel what it felt like to not be a minority, which at that time was not doing very well in the society."

Golijov came to the United States in 1986, intent on studying with the noted composer George Crumb at the University of Pennsylvania. He received his doctorate in composition four years later. The freshly minted Ph.D. quickly received several job offers, including one from the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music. It would have been the more typical choice for a practicing musician, a place rich in musical resources and where his works could be expected to receive performances.

"But I thought that I would make it anyway as a composer in the real world, and teach at a liberal arts college," Golijov says. Holy Cross also came calling. "I was fascinated by Holy Cross," he continues. "It is a really interesting situation. I wanted to leave Argentina because I wanted to be free as a Jew but when it came time to choose a college I was very attracted to learn about the Jesuit tradition. I loved simply walking in the College, the tranquility, the atmosphere that invites reflection and study." It was far different from the graffiti- and vandalism-scarred campuses often found in Argentina in the 1970s and 1980s. "It was like a shelter to be at Holy Cross," he recalls.

Frank Vellaccio, the Holy Cross senior vice president who hired Golijov, says he was especially attracted to the young composer's "cultural mix."

"It's what makes, in my mind, Osvaldo such an interesting composer," he says. "What he does is amazingly innovative, just dazzling to hear, and has a kind of level of complexity to it that is fascinating to people."

The College valued Golijov's liberal arts outlook and his ability to reach out to non-musicians in the student body. "If Osvaldo walked by and saw somebody tapping on a garbage can, that's music to him," Vellaccio says. "He has an enormously, incredibly, liberal arts approach to music, both in his professional life and particularly in his teaching."

Ensconced at Holy Cross, Golijov began working with the Kronos String Quartet, an ensemble that has helped revolutionize the quartet repertory, stretching its bounds with music from around the world. Golijov did dozens of arrangements for them. The St. Lawrence String Quartet was another important collaborating ensemble in those earlier professional years.

"At the time it was an unconventional way of growing up as a young composer," Golijov says. The usual path was to write orchestra pieces as a calling card. "I never felt that in my bones," he says. "My music needs more emotional involvement from the players, and there is more drama [in chamber music] than the 10-minute orchestra piece which is rehearsed for 15 minutes."

He compared the small-scale works to Rembrandt's etchings, in which the master created the illusion of colors through different densities of black and white.

"It comes back to that idea of a constellation of images," Golijov explains. "There have to be two things for this kind of approach to be valid. One is [that] the image, the symbol, has to be recharged with new meaning by what you do to it. The other is it has to be part of a constellation or juxtaposition that is unexpected."

Golijov's breakthrough came thanks to the classical music world's insistence on celebrating anniversaries of the birth and death of composers. In this case, it was the 250th anniversary of the death of Johann Sebastian Bach, in 1750. The European Music Festival in Stuttgart commissioned four composers to write passions based on each Gospel. St. Mark fell to Golijov. It was a hit, established him as a major composer and immediately entered the repertory. Golijov calls it his most important piece and credits Holy Cross for its creation.

"I wouldn't have written the 'Passion' if I hadn't been at Holy Cross," he says. "Because I am very Jewish," he explains, writing the "Passion" meant having to open himself to Christianity "in a deep way." Living with people who practice Catholicism in their daily lives allowed that to happen. But there was a more active contribution.

Golijov's teaching assistant at the time, Elizabeth Dunn Alvarez '98, gave him a personal tutorial on the Gospel of St. Mark. "He didn't want me to read it and interpret it academically," Alvarez says. "He had a real open mind as to my interpretation. He wanted to know how I felt about it, and my personal experience with faith."

While shrinking from a direct comparison with the artist, he returned to Rembrandt and his painting "Jeremiah Lamenting the Fall of Jerusalem."

"Rembrandt for me was the greatest Jewish painter," Golijov says. "He was not Jewish, but he lived among the Jews." He continues, "If my living among Christians as an outsider will bring a certain truth to Christianity that was not revealed before, then it was worth it for me as a Jew to take on this project."

Golijov also found inspiration for the "Passion" in his native continent, a place where people "preserve and celebrate their faith" despite immense poverty and natural calamities. Golijov compared the higher echelons of the church in Argentina that were aligned with the dictatorship to the chief priests who were responsible for Jesus' crucifixion, while the priests on the ground who were deemed enemies of the regime reflected a Christ-like nature.

Golijov's compositional methods have not gone without controversy. In March 2012, a mini-tempest broke out over an overture he titled "Sidereus." The nine-minute piece was commissioned by a group of 35 orchestras to pay homage to Henry Fogel, a prominent music industry figure. Bloggers accused him of lifting from a work for accordion and ensemble called "Barbeich," by Michael Ward-Bergeman, a close friend of Golijov.

Actually, Golijov explained at the time, the music came from a section written by the two men for the score to the movie "Tetro," directed by Francis Ford Coppola. They had collaborated so closely that the contribution of each one could no longer be isolated. The passage was never used in the movie, and each agreed that it was fair game for both as source material.

In the interview, Golijov said of "Sidereus," "It really comes from my workshop. It was my soundtrack. I think it was the right thing to do. Some people didn't think so. None of the orchestras complained. The creative process is much more fluid than people think from the outside. Both Michael and I are totally all right with how the thing went, except for the hate mail."

With Golijov's theatrical sensibility and penchant for vocal music, it is no surprise he turned to opera. "Ainadamar," inspired by the life of the writer Federico García Lorca, was his next big work. An early version in 2003 was criticized as being thin and padded, but a revision fared much better-enough to earn two Grammy awards.

The Metropolitan Opera in New York commissioned Golijov to write a work for its 2010-2011 season, but the sudden death of the original director, Anthony Minghella, and difficulties in finding a compatible partner delayed the work. However, he says he is back on track to completing the commission.

That is something he has not always been able to do. In fact, Golijov has become known for being late in producing pieces assigned to him. One of the missed deadlines was for a violin concerto to be played at Carnegie this season.

"The impression I've had is that he doesn't find it easy to write," says Justin Davidson, the music and architecture critic for New York Magazine. Jane Moss, Lincoln Center's vice president for programming, observes Golijov may have had trouble adjusting to the sudden burst of attention earlier in his career. "He became big news relatively quickly," she says. "All of a sudden you are in the middle of it all, and everybody wants something from you."

Golijov readily addresses the question.

"I have a really high rate of screw ups," he says with candor, remarking that in the case of a commissioned song cycle for Upshaw and the pianist Emmanuel Ax, he could not "zero in on an idea." The violin concerto was simply not good enough. "It's not cooked emotionally," he says. Cancelling the performance was "an unpleasant feeling for me, but also an honest feeling."

"It was always hard for me to write on deadline," Golijov says. "Especially [given] how classical music works-they commission you three years in advance or five years in advance, and then when the time comes, you are not there spiritually." He continues, "When the pieces are good, I'm emotionally very, very involved. The bad thing is when the emotion is not there I'd rather cancel than do a 'job-like' piece." Now, he says he is trying to write only what he wants.

"What I'm proud about is that a lot of my music keeps getting performed frequently, and the rate of what disappears is very slow," he says. "On the outside, I'm not as prolific as other composers. You have to live with who you are."

A day after the interview, Golijov sent an email elaborating on the issue. He has clearly spent a lot of time thinking about it.

"Of course it is unpleasant and frustrating to disappoint the performers and commissioners. Trust me, it is not a nice feeling. On the other hand, the history of music and art is filled with pieces that were unfinished or extremely late," he wrote. In the case of the scrapped violin concerto, Golijov continued, he simply cared too much about the piece. "Will I ever finish it? I believe so. Will it stay for the ages? I hope so: I have written a number of works that stay in the repertory and hope the violin concerto will be one more. In my book, oblivion is a worse fate than being late.

"In short, making a piece of art sometimes is smooth, sometimes is hell," he says. "For the artists-makers, it is the experience, including the struggle of making those pieces and also the pieces they don't finish but still struggle with. What ultimately matters for history are the pieces that remain in the collective soul of civilization."   ■

Daniel J. Wakin covers classical music and dance for The New York Times. As a reporter in the Culture Department, he has tackled topics including orchestra finances, music education, operatic plots at the opera house, retiring ballerinas, newly emerging choreographers, the rise of China in the world of classical music and obscure instruments like the theremin.