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The Passion of Golijov

With his latest composition, Osvaldo Golijov has earned international acclaim as one of the premier composers of his generation.

By Mark J. Cadigan

Osvaldo GolijovAssociate 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 seriously."

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, Germany, 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. Mark as 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: dance, theatre, classical 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 continually punished."

La Pasión has been performed in Stuttgart, Boston (the American premiere, featuring the Boston Symphony Orchestra) and Caracas, Venezuela. "The 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 Jewish song."

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 was drawing 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 was hooked."

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 itself. 

"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 Stoneham, Mass. 


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