"I really feel like a beginner," confides Osvaldo Golijov. "I don't say that out of false modesty; I truly think that only now am I being born as a composer, that I'm arriving at myself."
Lincoln Center's Great Performers series doesn't quite agree. In January and February, it turns the spotlight on the 45-year-old composer with a festival tribute titled The Passion of Osvaldo Golijov. Few other contemporary composers could claim the ardor that Golijov has won in short order from audiences, critics, and performers around the world. In fact, the roster of superb, internationally acclaimed artists gathering for the Great Performers celebration‹including soprano Dawn Upshaw, the Kronos Quartet, conductor Robert Spano, director Peter Sellars, clarinetist David Krakauer, and the St. Lawrence String Quartet‹testify to Golijov's talent and transcendent appeal.
Born to an Eastern European Jewish family in La Plata, Argentina, Golijov grew up with a host of diverse musical languages, from the Western classical canon and Jewish liturgical and klezmer music to Astor Piazzolla's new tango. At age 23, Golijov moved to Jerusalem, where he became entranced with Arab classical and folk music. A few years later, he settled near Boston, where the composer continues to make his home and to develop a blazingly original, intensely evocative voice that is stylistically fresh and emotionally immediate.
Three concerts taking place at the Allen Room during the festival will give audiences a greater glimpse into Golijov's sound world. On February 2 David Krakauer presents his singular Klezmer Madness! project, in which traditional Eastern European music collides with jazz, electronica, and other elements, as well as a performance of Golijov's Rocketekya. Two evenings of tango follow: the first, on February 3, offers a thoroughly modern take on the style, courtesy of the Bajofondo Tango Club; on the following evening, rising young Argentine star Cristobal Repetto plays with his trio.
Questions of what personal, cultural, and religious identity might mean return again and again in Golijov's work. In his 2004 song cycle Ayre (which will be performed on February 4 at the Rose Theater by Dawn Upshaw and the Andalucian Dogs), settings of medieval Sephardic Jewish folk songs nestle against a poem by the contemporary Palestinian writer Mahmoud Darwish, exploring shared themes of exile and loss.
Spano says that this element of Golijov's artistry is one of its most powerful attractions. "He takes things that seem to be disparate," observes the conductor, "and he puts them together in an organic way that makes it suddenly seem as if they were always meant to be together. It's a phenomenal quality."
Golijov notes that moving between seemingly impermeable cultural boundaries, and crossing between ancient and modern milieus and back again, is a means by which to address broader concerns. "I don't think these explorations are about me personally or my identity," he reflects. "It's about us collectively and our identity. Today, there are very few isolated places in the world, and so identity is a very fluid concept.
"I modulate between cultures," Golijov continues. "I use cultures and identities, and musical symbols of those identities, the same way that other composers might use tonal areas, modulating between key signatures."
That stylistic fluidity affects performers as well as listeners. "Osvaldo has really expanded my vocal palette," says Upshaw. "He has brought out sounds I hadn't ever imagined coming out of my throat." Working with Golijov has changed the way Upshaw even thinks about her art. "I feel like prior to working with him, I'd been living in only one room of a very large house," the singer reflects. "Suddenly, I'm walking through many other parts of the house that I hadn't known existed before, into new spaces with new colors."
Upshaw's first appearance at the festival will be during the New York premiere of Golijov's one-act chamber opera Ainadamar ("Fountain of Tears") in three performances on January 22, 24, and 26 at the Rose Theater. Directed by Peter Sellars, conducted by Miguel Harth-Bedoya, and co-starring mezzo Kelley O'Connor, the opera features a libretto by Tony Award winner David Henry Hwang. Ainadamar was inspired by the life and works of famed Spanish playwright Federico Garcìa Lorca.
As in Upshaw's performances, a number of other works included in this festival will be played by the artists for whom they were written. For instance, on February 8 at Alice Tully Hall, the St. Lawrence String Quartet will perform Golijov's Yiddishbbuk, which it premiered in 1992 and subsequently recorded. (The evening also features Golijov's The Dreams and Prayers of Isaac the Blind, in which the quartet is joined by clarinetist Todd Palmer, as well as Schubert's String Quintet in C major, with cellist David Finckel.)
"I am so lucky to have these friends," Golijov says. "Without these people, my music wouldn't be anywhere. Other performers today play my pieces really well, but I needed these people for that specific music to be born."
On February 22 at the Walter Reade Theater, Golijov will discuss his music for film with another friend and musical collaborator, fellow Argentine composer and performer Gustavo Santaolalla. In a discussion led by Film Society of Lincoln Center's program director Richard Peña, the two will discuss the intersection of music and cinema. Santaolalla penned the scores to the recent films 21 Grams and The Motorcycle Diaries; Golijov, who wrote the score for Sally Potter's movie The Man Who Cried among other projects, is currently at work on a score for a film directed by Francis Ford Coppola.
Another such group of friends is the Kronos Quartet, who have collaborated with Golijov on more than 30 works; they will play a number of these pieces on the February 4 program alongside Upshaw's performance of Ayre. "I feel like I've learned more from them than from my composition studies!" declares Golijov. "They helped me lose my fear, too. If I hadn't worked on their Caravan album, I wouldn't have written the Passion."
On February 20 and 21, Robert Spano brings this landmark work to the Rose Theater. Titled La Pasión Segun San Marcos ("The Passion According to St. Mark"), it was commissioned to mark the 250th anniversary of Bach's death in 2000. Golijov's reading of the Christian gospel interweaves colors and visions that Bach could never have dreamed of. Bahìan drums, Afro-Cuban dance rhythms, and African call-and-response singing narrate the story of a Latin American Jesus whose message extends well beyond Christian identity; his death is marked by the choir singing the traditional Jewish mourning prayer, the Kaddish.
Spano believes that Golijov's Passion has a power unlike any other work he has ever conducted. "It is not just a piece of music," he says ardently. "It's an event that changes the room, changes people's states of mind‹for some people, I know, it changes their lives. Audiences and performers alike leave the Passion laughing, weeping, exhilarated, exhausted; their responses run the gamut. No one is immune; everyone is affected in some way."
Anastasia Tsioulcas is the classical music columnist for Billboard Magazine, and writes frequently about classical music, world music, and jazz for such publications as the San Francisco Chronicle, Gramophone Magazine, and Jazz Times.