With his latest composition, Osvaldo
Golijov has earned international acclaim as one of the premier
composers of his generation.
Mark J. Cadigan
Professor of music Osvaldo Golijov is determined to keep
his head from
drifting into the clouds. Sure, he's pleased with the recognition he has received
in the last year for his composition, La Pasión Según San Marcos
(The Passion According to St. Mark). But, at the same time,
he's leery of the extravagant praise he has been receiving.
"Picasso always said that painters are good until the day they know they are
good; then they are not good anymore," Golijov says. "I take that very, very
Music journalists have been taking La Pasión seriously as
well. The Los Angeles Times called it, "a magnificent triumph of Latin
American music." The Boston Globe called it, "a work of genius," "staggering
in its display of compositional virtuosity" and "the first indisputably great
composition of the 21st century."
Lofty as such critical acclaim is, it's doubtful that it will prevent Golijov,
40, from working as hard as he always does. Here is a man who spent an academic
leave of absence not only completing the mammoth "Pasión," but
also scoring the film, The Man Who Cried, finishing a two-year tenure
as featured composer of New York's Merkin Hall, attending performances of his
works, giving preconcert talks (including one in London) and working with students
in July as composer in residence at the Tanglewood Music Center in Lenox, Mass.
Here is a man who regularly combines teaching, composing
and arranging-he's one of the Kronos Quartet's favorite arrangers-with the demands
of parenthood. He is a man possessed by a passion for music
and faith-and the intersection of the two.
Nevertheless, Golijov admits that undertaking La Pasión,
which was commissioned by the Internationale Bachakademie in Stuttgart,
was a challenge. "When I was asked to write The Passion, it was
not just a request to write St. Mark in Spanish; it was to write St.
experienced by Latin America," explains Golijov, who was born
and raised in La Plata, Argentina. "Because of the subject matter, this is a
piece that completely transcends me as a composer. So I think that
it's not about personal expression; it's about trying to distill the expression
of a whole culture, which is in itself a mixture of so many cultures."
La Pasión, which was premiered in Stuttgart on Sept.
5, 2000 and televised live throughout Europe, fuses many elements:
music, mambo, tango, rumba, bossa nova and more. "Usually depth in music is associated
with European classical music, and usually Latin American music is portrayed
as just fun or dance," Golijov asserts. "I
wanted to say, 'Yes, we dance, but we can be deep as well.' So I did want to
write a piece that, moment to moment, was simple and direct-like the works of
Jesus-in which the entire experience would be transcendent."
Golijov, who is Jewish, points out that he has always been struck by "the triumph
of faith, despite all the signs to the contrary," in Latin America, which is
predominantly Catholic. The process of writing La Pasión reaffirmed
that feeling and brought about a change within him, he says. Though
he remains a Jew, he declares that he's been "completely transformed by this story and by
this experience of learning and reacting to the story
of Christ . but even more by the power of faith there, in a continent that is
La Pasión has been performed in Stuttgart, Boston
(the American premiere, featuring the Boston Symphony Orchestra)
piece is very big and very expensive," Golijov notes, "but we have already organized
an American tour for 2002 and a European tour for 2003.
And then it's going to go to Hong Kong and Australia."
A compact disc of the Stuttgart premiere may be released. "We are also hoping
within the next year to do the studio recording and issue it as
soon as it's done," Golijov says.
The compact disc of the score to The Man Who Cried,
a film starring Johnny Depp, was just released in June. It's the first score for Golijov, who composes
on the piano.
"The film deals with the fate of both the Jewish people and the Gypsy people
during the Second World War. It is set in Paris. There is one character that
plays an Italian opera tenor, so I had three incredible worlds of cultures with
their very rich and complete music to draw upon, and that's
what I did," he says. "According to the dramatic situation, I would have the
music spring from an Italian aria or from a Gypsy ballad or from a
Merging different elements into a cohesive whole is nothing new for Golijov.
In a previous piece, The Dreams and Prayers of Isaac the Blind,
he combined klezmer music and the string quartet tradition.
In that case, he
upon musical styles he's been familiar with since his youth. Elsewhere, the multilingual,
open-minded Golijov does what comes naturally.
His musical tastes encompass many styles, eras and artists, from Tchaikovsky
to Antonio Carlo Jobim, Janis Joplin and Nirvana. "[Federico] Garcia Lorca, the
Spanish poet, said, 'I could explain to you what the truth in art is
if I didn't change my mind every five minutes.' It's like, when I hear Aretha
Franklin, I say, 'Well, this is it. This is what music is about.' And then I
hear Mahler or Mozart, and I say, 'Oh, no, it's this.' I'm highly
excitable," he explains, laughing.
Golijov, whose mother was a classical pianist, says that his fascination with
music began at an early age. "When I was a little kid, I spent a lot of time
just under the piano, listening to my mom practice. I guess my beginning as a
composer was listening to her playing Bach, specifically a piece where you have
two lines of music; one goes up and the other goes down at the same time. I was
completely amazed by that, that you have two different things making sense at
the same time. I mean, if two people speak
at the same time, you don't understand. But in music, having two completely different
lines moving in opposite directions simultaneously makes sense. So for me, trying
to uncover that mystery was something that I spent hours on, trying to play that
fragment and understand why it was beautiful, in the same sense that, perhaps,
the other kids disassemble a watch and then try to put it together. Well, the
same happened to me with Bach, and I
Golijov's musical journey includes a thorough educational component: Buenos Aires
State Conservatory and National University of La Plata, both in Argentina; Jerusalem
Music Center and Rubin Academy of Music, both in Israel; Accademia Musicale Chigiana
in Italy, Tanglewood Music Center in Massachusetts and Curtis Institute of Music
and the University of Pennsylvania, both in Pennsylvania. He received his Ph.D.
in composition from the University of Pennsylvania in 1991 and was hired by Holy
Cross shortly thereafter.
He has taught theory and introductory music courses as well as more specific
classes on Latin American music and movie soundtracks. "I want to explain that
somehow music manages to articulate inexpressible emotions and spirits of the
soul," he says. "If I can convey that to the students, then that's as high as
I can aim."
Golijov's high aim has also earned him numerous commissions, awards, academic
honors, fellowships (including a Guggenheim Fellowship for 1995-96) and scholarships
over the years. He even won first prize in the Kennedy Center Friedheim Awards
for New American Music twice, in 1993 and 1995. But he
doesn't let all that go to his head; he has other things on his mind.
"I'm very interested in faith and the manifestations of faith and how they rule
human behavior," he says. "Being a Holy Cross teacher is still an amazing experience,
a day-to-day great experience, to discover Christianity in a completely different
way than I had experienced it as a Jewish minority
in Argentina. So for me it's a great lesson in the beauty of Christianity. And,
of course, I like the students, and I have fun teaching. I love teaching, and
I love teaching in a place where I can learn."
The learning process became particularly reciprocal with Elizabeth Dunn, one
of Goljov's advisees, while he was writing "La Pasión," he says. "She
taught me how she understood the New Testament, the Gospel of St. Mark and, basically,
she was my teacher. That was a very unique and special experience. But, to a
lesser degree, every day I am affected by something
that a student asks or says."
Golijov, who lives with his wife and three children in Newton, Mass., seems to
have special relationships with his family, students, colleagues and with music
"I think that music is your best friend," he says. "It never leaves you. I am
a little bit of a 'dramatizer'; I say music saves my life. Sometimes you are
in the deepest hell, and you hear the right piece of music and that just brings
you joy. It's a deep thing, music."
Mark J. Cadigan is a free-lance writer from