By Jeff Dunn
Running more than a little late, the San Francisco Symphony will
finally hop aboard the Osvaldo Golijov bandwagon next week.
Golijov, one of the world's most famous composers, will debut
in Davies Hall Oct. 18-21 under the baton of Simyon Bychkov with
Last Round, a tribute to his idol, fellow Argentine composer
Golijov is not just a well-schooled, talented composer who has
impressed the cognoscenti. He has hit most people who have heard
him like a bombshell. Last summer, Richard Dyer of the Boston
Globe wrote, "When Osvaldo Golijov bounded onstage at Tanglewood
after the world-premiere performance of his Azul, the audience
- 8,692 people - greeted the composer like a rock star."
Golijov's recent opera Ainadamar was hailed as "stunning,"
"mesmerizing," "gorgeous," and "amazing" by a number of critics.
And back in 2001, Alex Ross of The New Yorker had this to say
about the Stuttgart premiere of La Pasion Segun San Marcos:
Audiences reacted with abandon, applauding and shouting for 20
minutes. "War Madonna im Saal?" asked the Stuttgarter Nachrichten.
"Oder wenigstens Michael Jackson? [Was Madonna in the house? Or
Michael Jackson?]" No - in the house was a 39-year-old Argentinean
of Eastern European-Jewish descent, who, until Pasion, was known
as the composer of a piece for string quartet and klezmer clarinet.
Golijov is a huge talent, with limitless possibilities in front
Fortunately, Bay Area new-music fans haven't had to wait for
the Symphony to bring Golijov to town. Not only are many of his
works available on CD, but the chamber version of Last Round was
performed at the 2005 Green Music Festival in Rohnert Park (see
review). The chamber works Yiddishbbuk and The Dreams and Prayers
of Isaac the Blind have been performed at least twice each since
2001 (and the latter will be performed yet again by the Gold
Coast Players in April 2007). Golijov's magnum opus so far,
the Pasion, was performed at Stanford nearly four years ago.
What is it about this composer that keeps the performances coming?
I would cite five qualities in particular: Golijov's ear, his
heart, his sense of drama, his feeling for melodic line, and
the breadth of his sources of inspiration. Let's take the last
characteristic first, for it is the most distinctive. Golijov's
background encompasses cultural influences high and low. This
would in itself make him a darling of the world-music movement,
but there's much more. His ear ensures that the ravishing new
sounds he creates do not drown each other out. His heart injects
passion into all that he does, but his sense of drama makes sure
not only that there are climactic moments, but that they occur
as part of a structurally sound arc of development. Finally,
his gift for melody and its transformation makes his material
flow and sing, sugar for the must-eat cake.
Golijov was born in La Plata, Argentina, in 1960. His mother
was a piano teacher; his father, a physician. Arriving in the
U.S. in 1986 after studying music for three years in Israel, he
earned a Ph.D. in composition at the University of Pennsylvania,
studying with George Crumb and, later, Oliver Knussen. He will
share composer-in-residence duties with Marc-Anthony Turnage at
the Chicago Symphony during the next two seasons, and he is a
professor at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Mass.
There is, however, nothing overly academic or stuffy about his
music, or his descriptions of it - heart first, theory later.
Last Round is Golijov's 14-minute, two-movement homage to Astor
Piazzolla (1921-1992), the great Argentine transformer of the
tango and other musical forms. The work is not only inspired
by Piazzolla, but by his instrument, the bandoneon. The first
movement is based on a story with the same name by Julio Cortazar:
A prizefighter gets a chance to come back from the dead for one
last round. Piazzolla, short of stature, was famous for his
fighting, especially when someone would rile him by asking,
"Could you play a tango?" You see, everything he'd been playing
before was a tango, but in an unconventional form that irked
traditionalists. Golijov's second movement, much of which was
written earlier, is an elegy to both Piazzolla and the tango
On Sept. 27, I reached Osvaldo Golijov by phone in the Boston
area, where he was busily working on the score for Francis Ford
Coppola's next film.
How did you come to be interested in the life and music of Astor
I first saw [Piazzolla] in La Plata when I was a kid. I went
to Buenos Aires to hear him, and then to New York, many times
through the late '80s. When I first heard him, it completely
transformed my life forever. I never had heard music by a leading
composer, let alone somebody who could synthesize so beautifully
all the music that I love: Bach, Mozart, Stravinsky - well, not
Mozart, maybe. And also the phrasing of the bandoneon and all
the instruments in the ensemble: It's a very clear distillation
of the way in which people spoke and walked in the '60s in
Argentina. So I could clearly see the connection between life
and music. It was something I could not see in the pieces I was
playing on the piano, because for me that was only music. Until
then, I always had to ask, 'How do you phrase this, how do you
phrase that work?' But with Piazzolla's music everything was so
clear because the pressures and the releases came from the way
in which people lived and spoke and walked and joked and cried
So did he become a model for you? Although you didn't decide to go into
fistfights, did you?
Yes, absolutely, yes - but no, no, no! I'm much more peaceful.
When [Piazzolla] had his stroke, my father called me and told
me, and I was really very devastated about it. I never met him
personally - I saw many of his concerts, but I never had the
nerve to go speak to him. Several times I have dreamed I would
come to him with Last Round and show it to him and he would say,
"It's good, but it's too late!"
In the first movement, I seem to hear contours of the Dies Irae.
Was that conscious, or not?
It's possible - why not? But not conscious. I was trying to
find the figure that I could pass from orchestra to orchestra.
[The piece is written for two string orchestras, facing each
other, with basses in between.] You know, when you dance the
tango, it's a constant provocation from one [partner] to the
other. I guess I was looking for that.
Do you have any Piazzolla quotations in the piece?
In the second movement, there's kind of a double quotation.
There's a beautiful Piazzolla tango called Milonga del Angel
[the Milonga is a type of Argentinean dance in 2/4 time with
accents on the first, fourth, fifth, and seventh of every eight
beats; it is also the name of a place where tangos are danced],
but at the same time the melodic figure is very much like what
might be called the national anthem of tango, which is My Beloved
Buenos Aires [Mi Buenos Aires querido], by Carlos Gardel.
Piazzolla himself acted in a movie with Gardel. For a while,
as a child, he lived in New York, and Gardel was at that time
shooting some movies for the Latin American market. In [one of
them, El Dia Que Me Quieras (The Day You Love Me)], he played a
I never think of my piece as a tango, because it's not. In a
much simpler way, it's like what Ravel did in La Valse: It's not
a waltz; it's a memorial to the era of the waltz.
What made you add the first movement, after writing the memorial
I thought it needed it. [For] the second movement, which I wrote
first, the idea was the bandoneon - the opening and closing, the
breathing of the bandoneon. But ultimately, it's a big opening
of the bandoneon. I loved when I watched Piazzolla play. He
would open the bandoneon almost to the infinite. He would spread
it like an eagle. In a way, the second movement is a huge
exhalation. My thought was about making a first movement that
is in a state of constant compression. A little bit like in
Tchaikovsky's Souvenir de Florence in the first movement [Allegro
con spirito]. I always feel it's a movement that acts like when
you send a rocket into space and it starts losing parts [the
stages fall away], and it gets faster and faster. So that's the
idea. I thought it would balance well the second movement.
The glissandi that I wrote in the first movement, it's something
Piazzolla used to do a lot. I thought it would be nice to do.
It's full of gestures of Piazolla, without any direct quotations.
He liked doing that. The glissando is also sexual and dancing.
Tell me about your work with Francis Ford Coppola on his new
film, Youth Without Youth.
I'm working on it as we speak. I have to record in late November.
I was [at Coppola's estate] in Napa Valley several times, and
also in Romania, because he was shooting and editing there [the
screenplay is adapted from a novella about immortality by the
Romanian philosopher Mircea Eliade]. It's the best experience
that you can imagine! He's a genius. Like a slow-moving volcano.
Writing the music is more "mood" than "clock." Very atmospheric.
It's not an action film, so, you don't need a watch [to precisely
time the music to the action].
What sort of moods did he ask for?
Well, memory, dark memories, danger, time. In the film,
time going backwards. He wanted it scored in the language of
[Schoenberg's] Verklarte Nacht. It's basically cimbalom, strings,
celesta, harp - a very subtle kind of thing. I tried to write
something beautiful in that style that's pretty dark and dramatic.
I work very hard on the melodies. They don't come easy. Sometimes
I find a good one and sometimes I don't.
Are you conscious of being a famous composer now, and are you
wondering what kind of legacy you will leave?
No, no. Yes and no. Who knows how long this thing will last.
It's a strange phenomenon.
You were greeted like a rock star at Tanglewood. How did that
It's strange, like being the Beatles. It's almost like being
two people: One is who I am; the other is when you go onstage.
It has nothing to do with who I am. It's something that you do:
You go onstage and people applaud or they boo you.
If you wrote your Pasion of San Marcos 30 years ago, would the
critics have thrown it away?
Yes, yes, it would have been treated like Bernstein's Mass. I'm
very lucky I was born when I was born.
Have there been highbrow types who have said you're too popular?
Oh, yes, of course! Mostly, I've been praised and vilified for
the wrong reasons. I guess I became the flag for the fight among
critics. There was a point when, instead of talking about my
music, they were just fighting among themselves. At some point,
it annoys you - then you realize that, well, it's life.
I wanted to ask you about the MacArthur Fellowship. What did
you do with it?
It's incredible, just incredible. Mostly, I just put it toward
the tuitions for my children. It went toward a higher calling!
I always worried about how I was going to afford the tuition,
but now I will be all right.
Do you have any final comments about Last Round and what you'd
like the audience to hear?
The idea, really, is to create a physiological music in the
first movement, to make your blood rush. I feel when I listen to
Tchaikovsky that he can really affect your bloodstream with his
rhythm. You know, when you dance tango, your torso is stiff,
but the legs fly.
(Jeff Dunn is a freelance critic with a B.A. in music and a
Ph.D. in geologic education. A composer of piano and vocal
music, he is a member of NACUSA and president of Composers Inc.)
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