Grammy-Winning Composer Osvaldo Golijov Premieres New Concerto

Man poses in front of building made of concrete and weathered steel walls.
Grammy-winning composer Osvaldo Golijov, the Maurice F. Reidy, S.J., composer-in-residence, in front of the Prior Performing Arts Center.

Years in the making, Golijov’s “The Given Note” made its worldwide debut at Prior Performing Arts Center.

When Grammy-winning composer Osvaldo Golijov sits at his piano at 3 a.m., he sometimes has to wait for the pieces of music bouncing around in his head to invite him to be part of the dialogue.

“You put something on the page and it talks back to you. It can change and surprise you,” said Golijov, the Maurice F. Reidy, S.J., composer-in-residence. 

The invitation of one such work eluded him for years. Inspired by Seamus Heaney’s poem “The Given Note” and intrigued by the haunting Irish song “Port na bPúcaí” (translated as “Song of the Spirits” or “Song of the Fairies”), Golijov wanted to create his own composition based on the tale of a lone fiddler heard playing in the wind carried from one of the Blasket Islands, located off the country’s west coast. Yet, as he tried to unite the poem and song, he was unable to find  unexpected connections to create motion between the chords to evoke a “goosebump moment.” 

“I knew I wanted to create a concerto. I felt a connection to the song and the poem, and saw that connection in Holy Cross’ Jesuit tradition and Irish roots,” he said. Golijov’s longtime desire came to fruition on May 3 with the world premiere of  “The Given Note,” a seven-movement violin concerto, at the Prior Performing Arts Center. The piece was performed by violinist Johnny Gandelsman and The Knights orchestra and was commissioned by Trudie and Neil Prior ’56, the latter also drawn to the haunting melody.  

Listen to an excerpt from "The Given Note": Movement VII (Port na bPúcaí)
Audio file
White man in suit in front of a harp addressing an audience before an orchestra performs.
Grammy-winning composer Osvaldo Golijov introducing his new concerto "The Given Note."
Male violin soloist dressed in black standing in front of an orchestra.
Soloist Johnny Gandelsman performs Movement VI during Golijov's "The Given Note."

Golijov said when composing his violin concerto, the closing line from Heaney’s poem deeply resonated with him. “… He took it out of the wind off mid-Atlantic. Still he maintains, from nowhere. It comes off the bow gravely, rephrases itself into the air.”

“That is the magic of music. This idea of a melody that rephrases itself in the air is a high calling for a composer. It can be how you unveil that melody,” he said.

Golijov said “The Given Note” explores two ways of patterning the notes: first as the geometry of a dream, which is mostly fluid, with the second exploring the geometry of the performing arts center, honoring its angles and curves: “I wanted to compose a work that evokes emotion less by the sentiment of the tunes and more by the architecture of the music,” he said. To him, the performing arts center, like the College itself, has the potential to change lives: “You never know what can happen when you participate in an artistic activity as a maker or an audience. It can open a whole new dimension.”

A conductor leads an orchestra.
Conductor Eric Jacobsen leads The Knights orchestra during a performance of Osvaldo Golijov's "The Given Note."
The string section of an orchestra.
"The Given Note" premiered at the Luth Concert Hall at the Prior Performing Arts Center.

Through the seven movements, Golijov said he wanted to honor the work of the people who created the space — the architects and builders — and respect the original Irish song. To create this musical architectural illusion, he looked to another Heaney poem, “At the Wellhead,” and its line “Sing yourself to where the singing comes from...” to create an ethereal feel.

“[The line] invites you to a mysterious place that you can access, but it takes a lot of faith and dedication. You have to feel it. As a composer, if you can get there and get the goosebumps, you know the audience will get them, too,” he said.

Listen to the transition between Movements II and III in “The Given Note”
Audio file

For the majority of the middle movements, Golijov said he wanted to be more playful and bring in more of the orchestra to musically illustrate the curves and lines of the building's structure. To do so, he imaged what it would sound like if Cuban author Alejo Carpentier’s novel “Concierto Barroco” were to come to life with Vivaldi, Haendel, Scarlatti and an African visitor, Filomeno, playing an all-night jam session in 18th-century Venice. “It’s essential to have playfulness in the arts. It’s serious, but fun,” he said.

In the sixth movement, the orchestra fades away to make space for soloist Gandelsman. It, too, is inspired by another line from Heaney’s poem: “The house throbbed like his full violin.”

The string section of an orchestra seated and performing.
Members of The Knights orchestra perform "The Given Note" by composer Osvaldo Golijov.
Orchestra cellists perform during a concerto.

In adding patterns to the composition, Golijov said he wanted to build anticipation and generate greater emotion from the musicians and the listeners as they begin to hear the different layers in the piece.

“It’s like a flower or a snowflake. The more you look, the more you see the geometry and architecture that nature creates. This allows us to commune with something bigger than ourselves,” he said.

“The Given Note” is Golijov’s second work to premiere at Holy Cross, following 2019’s song cycle “Falling Out of Time,” inspired by David Grossman’s novel of the same name.