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Golijov's mother was a piano teacher, his father, a physician. He was raised "surrounded by chamber classical music, Jewish liturgical and klezmer music, and the new tango of Ástor Piazzolla," according to his official website. He studied piano at the local conservatory in La Plata and studied composition with Gerardo Gandini.
In 1983, Golijov moved to Israel, where he studied with Mark Kopytman at the Jerusalem Rubin Academy. Three years later, he moved to the United States. There he studied with composer George Crumb at the University of Pennsylvania before receiving his doctorate.
Golijov is the recipient of the MacArthur Fellowship and the Vilcek Prize, among other awards and commissions. He has collaborated closely with conductors Robert Spano and Miguel Harth-Bedoya; soprano Dawn Upshaw; vocalists Luciana Souza and Biella de Costa; cellists Yo-Yo Ma, Alisa Weilerstein, Maya Beiser and Matt Haimovitz; clarinetists David Krakauer and Todd Palmer, the kamancheh virtuoso Kayhan Kalhor and percussionist Jamey Haddad; ensembles including the Atlanta Symphony, the Boston Symphony, the Chicago Symphony, the Kronos Quartet and Saint Lawrence String Quartet, the Silk Road Ensemble and eighth blackbird; young composers Michael Ward-Bergeman, Gonzalo Grau and Jeremy Flower; the artist Gronk, playwright David Henry Hwang, and directors Francis Ford Coppola and Peter Sellars. He has been composer-in-residence at the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Merkin Hall in New York, the Spoleto Festival USA, the Los Angeles Philharmonic's Music Alive series, Marlboro Music School and Festival, Ravinia Festival, and several other festivals. In 2010, he composed a commissioned work for 35 American orchestras titled Sidereus, honoring the seventeenth century Italian astronomer Galileo. and dedicated to an orchestra industry official, Henry Fogel. For the 2012-13 season, Golijov held the Richard and Barbara Debs Composer's Chair at Carnegie Hall in New York.
Golijov has developed a rich musical language, the result of a lifetime of experience with various types of music. His Romanian Jewish parents exposed him to the traditional Klezmer music and liturgical music of their faith. Growing up and going to public school in Argentina showed him the many musical styles of his family's adopted country, including the tango. Once Golijov traveled abroad to continue his studies, the influences of other people and other styles became part of him.
Golijov and composers Sofia Gubaidulina, Tan Dun, and Wolfgang Rihm were commissioned by the Internationale Bachakademie Stuttgart to write pieces for the Passion 2000 project in commemoration of Johann Sebastian Bach. Golijov's contribution was La Pasión según San Marcos (The Passion according to St. Mark).
He has also composed and arranged works for the Kronos Quartet and the St. Lawrence String Quartet. He frequently works with Venezuelan conductor María Guinand, who conducted the world premieres of Oceana (commissioned by the Oregon Bach Festival, 1996) and La Pasión según San Marcos (Stuttgart's European Music Festival, 2000); classical and Klezmer clarinetist David Krakauer; and American soprano Dawn Upshaw, who performed premieres of his new opera, Ainadamar (and Arias and Ensembles derived from it) at Tanglewood with the Boston Symphony Orchestra (which commissioned the opera) in 2003, the Santa Fe Opera Festival in 2005, London's Barbican Arts Centre in 2006 and Opera Boston in 2007. Upshaw also performed the premiere of Golijov's song cycle Ayre in 2004 at New York's Zankel Hall. Azul, a work for cello and orchestra, was written for Yo-Yo Ma, who premiered the work with the Boston Symphony Orchestra in 2006. Golijov's first movie soundtrack experience was for Sally Potter's 2000 film The Man Who Cried. More recently he composed for Francis Ford Coppola's movie Youth Without Youth, and original music for Coppola's films Tetro and Twixt. His music has been played during a performance of the New Jersey-based Lydia Johnson Dance company.
Ainadamar (2003, revised 2005): Golijov's first opera, Ainadamar ("Fountain of Tears"), received its premiere in Tanglewood in 2003; the revised, current version, premiered at the Santa Fe Opera in 2005. Ainadamar — subtitled An Opera in Three Images — explores the life and death of playwright Federico Garcia Lorca, through the lens of his relationship with actress Margarita Xirgu and his play Maria Pineda. The opera has been produced worldwide, including New York, Chicago, Boston, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, Madrid, Granada, Darmstadt, Adelaide, London, and Bogata, among others. 2013 sees the opera's Japanese premiere, as well as its third production in Spain. A 2006 recording for Deutsche Grammophon received Grammy awards for both Best Opera Recording and Best Classical Contemporary Composition.
Ayre (2004): Ayre, a song cycle for soprano and ensemble, received its premiere in 2004 at New York's Zankel Hall, performed by Dawn Upshaw and The Andalucian Dogs. The work, commissioned by Carnegie Hall, was conceived as a companion piece to Luciano Berio's Folk Songs, which shared the program at the premiere. Just as Berio sought to honor the artistry and versatility of Cathy Berberian in his songs, Golijov and Carnegie agreed that Ayre should honor the artistry, love for folk music and versatility of Dawn Upshaw. Both works reimagine folk melodies and also "folk-like" pieces by other composers. Specifically, Ayre's texts and some melodies are based on Sephardic and Arabic folk songs, 12th-century liturgical poetry of Yehuda Halevi, a modern poem by Mahmoud Darwish, and two pieces by Gustavo Santaolalla. As an additional homage to the Berio work, Golijov uses the same instruments as Folk Songs: flute, clarinet, harp, viola, cello, and percussion, to which he adds horn, double bass, accordion, guitar/ronroco, and laptop. Ayre was recorded and released on a 2005 Deutsche Grammophon CD, resulting in a Grammy nomination for Best Classical Contemporary Composition. Additionally, the recording was included on numerous "Best of the Year" lists, including those of The New York Times, Chicago Tribune, Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and San Jose Mercury News.
Azul (2006): Azul, for cello and orchestra, was commissioned by the Boston Symphony Orchestra and written for cellist Yo-Yo Ma, who premiered the work at Tanglewood in 2006. In addition to the cello soloist, the orchestra is joined by a featured obligato group of hyperaccordion and ethnic percussion. As with many of his works, Golijov subsequently revised the work, leading up to its New York premiere in the opening concert of the Mostly Mozart Festival of 2007, with Alisa Weilerstein as the soloist. Since then the work has been championed by both Weilerstein and Ma and various major orchestras. Azul was featured on the New York Philharmonic's 2013 season opening gala concert, which was filmed and was televised nationally in the United States on December 31, 2013.
The Dreams and Prayers of Isaac the Blind (1994): The Dreams and Prayers of Isaac the Blind, written for klezmer clarinet and string quartet (and subsequently offered in a version for clarinet and string orchestra) is inspired by the writings and teachings of Rabbi Yitzhak Saggi Nehor — also known as Isaac the Blind — who lived in twelfth and thirteenth century Provence. The 33-minute work is presented in three movements, each stylistically inspired by one of the three main historical Jewish languages — Aramaic, Yiddish, and Hebrew — plus a prelude and postlude. The third, "Hebrew" movement is in fact an instrumental setting of a vocal work, K'vakarat (also 1994) that Golijov composed for cantor and string quartet using the text of a prayer from Yom Kippur. The Dreams and Prayers of Isaac the Blind has been recorded by the Kronos Quartet with David Krakauer (1997), and the St. Lawrence String Quartet with Todd Palmer (2002).
La Pasión según San Marcos (2000): La Pasión según San Marcos, Golijov's interpretation of the Gospel According to St. Mark, was commissioned by the International Bach Academy and its director, Helmuth Rilling, as part of their observation of the 250th anniversary of the death of Johann Sebastian Bach. The work received its premiere in Stuttgart on September 5, 2000, where is received a 25-minute standing ovation and was widely hailed by critics as establishing a new voice for classical music at the dawn of the 21st century. Following Bach's tradition, Golijov adds interpolated texts that serve to frame and interpret the original words of St. Mark (sung in Spanish) describing the last days of Jesus's life. Specifically, he includes selected texts from the Hebrew Kaddish, the Lamentations of Jeremiah, Psalms 113-119, and the poetry of Rosalia de Castro. Musically, he tells the story through a range of Latin musical idioms, including Cuban, Brazilian, and Flamenco. Since its premiere, the work has been presented in cities including Boston (2001 and 2014), Sidney (2002), Miami (2007), New York (2002, 2006, 2007 and 2013), Rome (2008), Milan (2008), Amsterdam (2008), and Los Angeles (2010). It has been recorded by Hänssler Classics (2001) and Deutsche Grammophon (2010).
Oceana (1996): Oceana, for Vocalist, Boy Soprano, Chorus, and Orchestra, was commissioned by the Oregon Bach Festival for its 1996 concert series, Cantatas of the Americas. The commission, awarded to four composers, sought modern choral works in the spirit of Johann Sebastian Bach. The work uses as its text poems of Chilean poet Pablo Neruda; the solos were written for vocalist Luciana Souza, who performed the work at its premiere. According to Golijov, his aim was "the transmutation of passion into geometry" which he feels is a hallmark of both Bach's and Neruda's work. A recording of Oceana—featuring Ms. Souza and the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Robert Spano—was released by Deutsche Grammophon in 2007.
Yiddishbbuk (1992): Yiddishbbuk, for string quartet, was commissioned by the Fromm Foundation and the Tanglewood Music Festival, and premiered at Tanglewood by the St. Lawrence String Quartet. The work takes its inspriration from a quote from a letter by Franz Kafka: "No one sings as purely as those who are in the deepest hell. Theirs is the song which we confused with that of the angels." The work's movements bear the initials of those it commemorates. First movement: three children interned by the Nazis at the Terezin: Doris Weiserova, Frantisek Bass, and Tomas Kauders, whose poems and drawings appear in the book ...I never saw another butterfly.... Second movement: writer Isaac Bashevis Singer. Third movement: composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein. Yiddishbbuk has been recorded by the St. Lawrence String Quartet on a disc of the same title that was nominated for Classical Album of the Year at the Juno Awards of 2003 and Best Chamber Music Performance in the Grammy Awards of the same year.
Collaboration with Dawn Upshaw: Golijov has written many works for American soprano Dawn Upshaw, with whom he had a long collaboration, and who has been widely described as his muse. The following works were composed for, and premiered by, Upshaw:
Film Scores: Golojov has written the scores for feature films as well as music for documentaries and shorter films. In particular, he has worked with Francis Ford Coppola on several of his films, as well as with filmmakers such as Alejandro González Iñárritu, Laura Poitras, and Sally Potter.
Films scored by Osvaldo Golijov:
Golijov has been the nexus of several controversies around his work, including missed deadlines and accusations of plagiarism.
Golijov came under scrutiny in 2011 for a series of high-profile commissions that were either delayed or cancelled. A violin concerto written for the Los Angeles Philharmonic was not completed in time, and had to be replaced on the program. A second deadline was missed the following year in Berlin. The piece was delayed a third time in November 2012, and missed its January 2013 premiere at Disney Hall.
This followed a similar cancellation in 2010, when a scheduled song cycle had to be removed from the program when it was not complete in time. The March 2011 premiere of a new string quartet for the St. Lawrence Quartet was also delayed due to a missed deadline, though the work, Qohelet, was completed later that year and premiered by the quartet in October 2011.
Questions of musical plagiarism were leveled at Golijov after Tom Manoff, a composer and critic, and Brian McWhorter, a trumpeter, alleged that Sidereus consists mainly of music from the Michael Ward-Bergeman composition Barbeich. Alex Ross of The New Yorker reviewed both scores and wrote, "To put it bluntly, 'Sidereus' is 'Barbeich' with additional material attached," yet Ross adds that Ward-Bergeman was aware of Golijov's borrowings. A consortium of thirty-five orchestras had paid Golijov $75,000 to write a 20-minute work; a fee supplemented by a $50,000 grant approved by the then board of the League of American Orchestras. The final work that Golijov produced and gave to the consortium of orchestras is a 9-minute work. Golijov also used that same musical material in his 2009 composition Radio. Golijov responded to these questions by explaining that he composed the original musical material jointly with Ward-Bergeman for a film score which in the end did not include the material, and that he used it by agreement with Ward-Bergeman. He also cited Claudio Monteverdi, Franz Schubert and Gustav Mahler as other composers who have shared existing musical material to create new music.