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“If the center is the human soul”: an interview with Osvaldo Golijov

Angela Allen talks with the Willamette Valley Chamber Music Festival's multifaceted resident composer.

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Osvaldo Golijov is a spare man with a robust repertoire in the contemporary classical-music world. He has written an opera, a Mass, movie scores, song cycles, symphonic music, and lots of chamber music. Though his composing tastes are diverse and far-flung, the Argentine-born composer says that his “spiritual home is chamber music, especially string music.”

A resident of Brookline, Mass., Golijov, 60, communicated with Oregon Arts Watch via audio files earlier in August while meeting a deadline composing a string quartet for Brooklyn Rider.

Luckily for Oregon concertgoers, they’ll hear or have heard several of Golijov’s string pieces at the hybrid Willamette Valley Chamber Music Festival (live and online concerts began Aug. 7 and continue through Sept. 4). See my Aug. 2 Oregon Arts Watch story, “A harmonious match for the senses.”

Osvaldo Golijov. Photo by Yonni Golijov.
Osvaldo Golijov. Photo by Yonni Golijov.

Musicians will perform two Golijov works Aug. 14 at J. Christopher Wines (and virtually beginning Aug. 20): the 33-minute “The Dreams and Prayers of Isaac the Blind” that premiered in 1994 and features five clarinets, including the Klezmer, and the premiere of the short “mentre la pioggia,” built on Antonio Vivaldi’s sonnet’s image that accompanies his “Four Seasons Winter Concerto.”

“Arum der Fayer,” Golijov’s work based on a familiar Yiddish folk song and written as a tribute to a friend who died of Covid-19, will be part of the third weekend, Aug. 21 at Archery Summit Winery (virtually, beginning Aug. 27). String quartet musicians performed his “Tenebrae” at the Aug. 7 Sokol Blosser Winery program (the virtual concert goes through Aug. 20).

Luckily for WVCMF musicians, Golijov is in Oregon wine country Aug. 10-17 as WVCMF’s composer-in-residence. Having a composer on site—or last year, virtually—to work with musicians is a sacred practice of the 6-year-old festival founded and co-directed by Oregon-born violinist Sasha Callahan and cellist Leo Eguchi. Previous composers have been Joan Tower, Jessie Montgomery, Gabriela Lena Frank, Kenji Bunch and Daniel Roumain. If some have international strains in their blood and backgrounds, these previous composers-in-residence were educated and rooted in the United States.

Golijov is different from his predecessors. His music is a blend of the many cultures he has lived in and traveled through, especially Argentina, where he grew up in a Jewish family who loved tango as much as Tchaikovsky; in Israel, where he studied music in the mid-80s; and in the United States, where he has settled for the last 40 years, earning a PhD in 1990 at University of Pennsylvania, winning a MacArthur Genius Award in 2003, and teaching at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Mass. for the last 30 years.

The London Sinfonietta, Boston Symphony Orchestra, Kronos Quartet and Los Angeles Philharmonic are among the many groups that have performed his music. He has won two GRAMMYs and a Guggenheim Fellowship, among other awards.

Moving about the world has served him and his music well, he said: “There is something very, very beautiful about being born in and staying in one place, but my life story is different. These days millions and millions move to different countries. Well, something is lost, something is gained.”

The most important thing, no matter how itinerant one is, he said, is “just to do the music that is true to who you are and where you are.” 

Waking up to his talent

Golijov began composing when he was 5 or 6 years old, playing with his toys under his mother’s piano and making up tunes. Improvisation and making new music were more interesting to him than becoming an accomplished pianist, though he does compose on the piano, despite what he refers to as his “poor” piano-playing. In his childhood days, his mother, a piano teacher, notated his pieces. A few years later, singing liturgical music in the synagogue choir, he was inspired to arrange the music differently.

But his “great wake-up call” as a musician and composer arrived when he was about 9 years old, and his mother took him to hear Astor Piazzolla, whom Golijov refers to with a wink and a smile as the “Tango Doctor.”

“I could really understand everything — harmonies, counterpoints, rhythms, all that related him to Stravinsky and Bartók. I could see how life itself was distilled into his music. I could hear all the people walking, cursing, talking, loving, seducing, being melancholy. Everything became notes and rhythms and I thought that was extraordinary. I’m still grateful that Piazzolla’s music helped me to become a composer.”

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And like many composers and artists, he said, “My life story is reflected in my music.”  As he has moved across several continents, he has soaked up many kinds of music.

“Being in America for so long, I absorbed so much especially because of the connection with so many different musicians. Iranian musicians come to mind, percussionists I met when composing the `Pasion’ [`La Pasion Segun San Marcos’]. Those are not Argentinian or Israeli rhythms, they are from Cuba and Brazil.”

Many consider “La Pasion” Golijov’s masterpiece, which reimagines Bach’s “Passion” on the streets of Cuba and Brazil during carnival time. The European Music Festival commissioned the piece to commemorate the 250th anniversary of Bach’s death, and it premiered in Stuttgart in 2000, where it inspired an astounding 25-minute standing ovation. It was “widely hailed by critics as establishing a new voice for classical music at the dawn of the 21st century,” according to a 2015 Friends of Music blog post. “A true pan-American passion, this is a theatrical and original carnival of South American singing, dancing and drumming. It turned Golijov into the most feted young composer in America.”

Composers and Composing

Golijov is the first to credit many composers who have come before him for forging the music trail. HIs favorites, he said, “depend on where I am in life and in music. But always, I love Bach, Beethoven, Schubert — and Leos Janacek. Right now, I’m loving Tchaikovsky.”

His favorite contemporary composers, however, are rooted in another genre: jazz.

“People I adore the most are the jazz giants, Chick Corea, Herbie Hancock, and especially Wayne Shorter, my God! Jazz is the love of my life and my great regret is of having grown up somewhere else that I never studied jazz properly. I cannot stop marveling at that music!”

As for the young musicians he teaches, including those who want to compose, his method is “to gently allow the person to discover their voice.”

Every student, of course, is different, and the craft is essential to know, but he recalls the words of his legendary teacher George Crumb: “`Music is a system of proportions at the service of a spiritual impulse.’ That always surprises me because it doesn’t even mention sound, which is extraordinary.”

Golijov helps aspiring composers with craft, but ultimately, he asks his students, “What is that spiritual impulse for which they will have to find the proportion?”

Writing around the edges of conventional classical music, he said, his “natural inclination is to write hybrid music. I love to write for people who don’t even know how to read music. They remember big structures and can play by heart.”

If his music is at times without categorization, Golijov is far from feeling like an outsider in the classical music world. “What is periphery and what is center? If the world of symphony orchestras is the center, maybe I am an outsider, like Mussorgsky“–another composer who often defied musical conventions and trends. ”But if there is no center, and if the center is the human soul, I believe I am right there.”

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Angela Allen writes about the arts, especially opera, jazz, chamber music, and photography. Since 1984, she has contributed regularly to online and print publications, including Oregon ArtsWatch, The Columbian, The San Diego Union-Tribune, Willamette Week, The Oregonian, among others. She teaches photography and creative writing to Oregon students, and in 2009, served as Fishtrap’s Eastern Oregon Writer-in-Residence. A published poet and photographer, she’s a member of the Music Critics Association of North America and a recipient of an NEA-Columbia Journalism grant. She earned an M.A. in journalism from University of Oregon in 1984, and 30 years later received her MFA in Creative Writing/Poetry from Pacific Lutheran University. She lives in Portland with her scientist husband and often unwieldy garden. Contact Angela Allen through her website.

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