Aspen Music Fest devotes recital to works of Osvaldo Golijov
July 29, 2009
ASPEN – Gustav Mahler said that the symphony should contain “the entire universe,” and that the symphony orchestra was the vehicle best suited for such a vast undertaking.
But Mahler died in 1911. His universe thus did not include world wars or the Holocaust, jam bands or jazz, nuclear weapons or the Internet. Over the century-plus since Mahler made his famous declaration, the world has expanded in experience, emotion and sound.
Osvaldo Golijov, a composer who is in the process of building close ties to the Aspen Music Festival, doesn’t argue with Mahler’s central point of embracing all experience in music. But he believes that other means of expression beyond the symphony and the symphonic orchestra are required to encompass this advanced cosmos.
“I think the symphony orchestra is not enough today,” Golijov said. “We are essentially after Mahler. For Mahler, the orchestra was enough – but we have a hundred more years of experience. The planet has been enlarged. If something I love is not included in classical music, I don’t dismiss it.”
Golijov lives in the classical world: He has been a professor in the music department of College of the Holy Cross in Massachusetts for nearly 20 years, and is a composer-in-residence at the Mostly Mozart Festival and with the Chicago Symphony. He has a short stay as a visiting composer in Aspen this summer, and is scheduled to return next year for a longer residency.
Artistically, however, he has not been constrained by the usual classical boundaries. Golijov has made extensive explorations of Latin music (he was born and raised in Argentina) and of klezmer music, and music with Jewish themes (his family heritage traces back to Eastern European Jews). He has written movie scores, most notably for the two latest films by Francis Ford Coppola, including the current “Tetro,” set in Golijov’s hometown of Buenos Aires. He has a passion for tango and Billie Holiday; he has worked with the Mexican rock group Cafe Tacuba and the Romanian Gypsy band, Taraf de Haidouks. Among his closest collaborators has been the Kronos Quartet, among the most forward-looking string ensembles.
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In his current Aspen stint, Golijov is demonstrating a glimpse of his outside thinking. A concert last week by the Aspen Chamber Symphony featured his reworking of Schubert’s vocal piece “She was here,” with soprano Dawn Upshaw. The performance showed not only that Golijov was willing to mess with Schubert’s creation – in an introduction, Aspen Music Festival president Alan Fletcher, a composer himself, posed the question: “Is it more Schubert or more Golijov?” – but that Golijov’s style can be contemporary, unique and beautiful.
Wednesday brings a full recital devoted to Golijov’s music; the instrumentation for his “Ayre,” again featuring Upshaw, and “The Dreams and Prayers of Isaac the Blind,” includes strings and clarinet, as well as the hyper-accordion (an accordion with stereo capacity) and laptop computer and sound design.
Golijov said that classical music has gone through periods of being open to outside influences, and periods of being more insular. He likens external sounds and emotions to fire, which have heated up and energized the music. “Sometimes the fire goes through classical music,” he said. “When the music becomes too self-referential and disconnected from human experience, and composers are only writing to each other, then the fire goes elsewhere.
“It has to breathe with other music, and not within itself. You need to go outside of it. It’s almost your duty. The great classical composers explain the entire range of human emotion and with all the means at their disposal. Today, the symphony orchestra is still an amazing instrument, But there are others.”
Golijov brought up Billie Holiday as an example of an emotional expression that could not have existed in Mahler’s day. “There are singers who have reached depths of emotion and content outside of classical,” Golijov said. “What are you going to do, ignore them?
“The point of departure is, What do you want to talk about? If you want to talk about sexual provocation, you would be a fool not to explore the tango.”
Like the universe, Golijov has not stopped expanding. After studying piano and composition in Argentina, he moved, in 1983, to Jerusalem. It remains the pivotal episode of his life, for musical and other reasons. “The discovery of all the other Jewish music, the rawness of the human experience,” reflected Golijov, who spent three years in Israel before moving to the U.S., and who has lived in Boston for 22 years. “It was like a second childhood, like discovering the world again.”
Golijov produced distinguished work early in his career, including “Yiddishbbuk,” a 1992 string quartet inspired by Jewish psalms, which was eventually recorded by the St. Lawrence String Quartet in 2002. It was in 2000, however, with his “St. Mark Passion,” that he came to full prominence. The piece, written to commemorate the 250th anniversary of J.S. Bach’s death, looked at the Gospel of Mark through the prisms of the Latin and Jewish experience, folk music and dance. A recording of the piece, retitled “La Pasion segun San Marcos,” earned a 2002 Grammy nomination.
“It was startling,” Golijov, who is generally soft-spoken, said of his piece. “That wasn’t the idea. The idea was to be honest and truthful to how the story is lived in Latin America. And to use the structure and instrumentation of Bach would be like using powder and wig. I needed different types of instrumentation.”
In 2007, Golijov earned two Grammys for a recording of his 2003 opera, “Ainadamar,” the story of Spanish playwright Federico Garcia Lorca, and his lover and muse, actress Margarita Xirgu (a role written for Upshaw). But a more momentous piece was “Azul.” The work, for cello and orchestra, was originally composed for cellist Yo-Yo Ma, in 2006. But Golijov wasn’t satisfied with the original version – “I wanted it to be contemplative, not a heroic concerto. There was no quest,” he said – and recomposed it for cellist Alisa Weilerstein.
The reworked piece was performed in Aspen last summer by Weilerstein, and, as everywhere it has been presented, it was a sensation. Most striking was the cadenza for cello, percussion and hyper-accordion; the segment, with its loose, funky rhythms, had put me in mind of a jam-band. When I mentioned this, Golijov gave a knowing nod.
“There’s this organic growth of things, which you find in late Mahler, Debussy, a real growth that is unforced,” he said. “There’s not a lot of that in classical music. In German tradition, there’s a lot of willpower.”
“Azul,” said Golijov, is “a gate to a new stage in my music. It opened a new lyricism, something that integrates all of what I wanted to do. I felt more true substance than my earlier pieces.
“It’s less self-centered in a way. It removes the ‘me’ element. It’s a little bit more cosmic, about the wonder of what life is.”
Golijov is at work on his first major piece since “Azul,” an opera about Galileo and Stephen Hawking for the Metropolitan Opera.
“It will build on ‘Azul,'” he said. “‘Azul’ has the grammar for it. It will be pretty far out, even if it’s called opera.”