A Pasíon for making music

As a boy, Osvaldo Golijov spent a lot of time under his mother's piano bench while she played or gave lessons.

Later on, he moved up onto the bench. But more than playing, he found he enjoyed pulling the music apart to see what made it tick.

"I always wanted to understand how things worked in pieces by Bach and Beethoven," he says. By age 10, he was writing "little ditties"; at 12, he composed his first real piece, "a rather long tone poem."

Three decades later, Mr. Golijov is described by music critics as "the serious composer of the moment" and a talent who "could not be hotter right now."

Most of that adulation stems from his remarkable work for orchestra and chorus called "La Pasión Según San Marcos," commissioned to mark the 250th anniversary in 2000 of the death of J.S. Bach. The raw, energetic piece brought the audience to its feet for an extended ovation in its debut in Stuttgart, Germany, a reaction that's been repeated at more than a dozen subsequent performances around the world. A Boston critic called "Pasión" "the first indisputably great composition of the 21st century." Another in Washington said hearing it was "like being knocked down by a tornado."

What seems to have captured the hearts of critics and audiences is the freshness in the writing of Mr. Golijov, who grew up in Argentina with Eastern European Jewish roots, lived for three years in Jerusalem, and now makes the Boston area his home.

His music reflects an eclectic mix of influences and has included at times electronic sounds, klezmer, rock, flamenco, and traditional European forms, as in the works of Bach and Mozart. It's a rich stew of sounds, but what has impressed listeners is the skill of the chef, who makes the flavors complement each other.

A celebrity in classical world

A friendly, soft-spoken modest man in his early 40s, Golijov has made a kind of peace with his newfound celebrity within the world of classical music.

"It is better to not have the attention, to tell you the truth," he says, sitting in an upper room of a house on the grounds at Tanglewood, the summer home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. "But one has to live through everything: through the attention, the backlash, the indifference, and the adulation. You have to see [that] you do your best."

His strategy is to try to ignore his celebrity. "We should just work, like Bach and Rembrandt," he says, mentioning two prodigiously productive artists. "Sometimes it's going to be astonishing, and sometimes it's just all right. But the beauty is just going every morning to work."

Golijov was in western Massachusetts for the world première of his first opera "Ainadamar," commissioned by the Tanglewood Music Center and based on the life of the martyred Spanish poet Frederico García Lorca. Early reviews had been mixed, ranging from raves to disappointment. The piece is next scheduled for a week of performances in New York in October, followed by Los Angeles in 2004.

Golijov (pronounced GAW-lee-hof) conceded he had felt some extra pressure about this piece, his first major work since the acclaimed "Pasión. "Absolutely. That was a little scary," he said with a pleasant Spanish accent.

Though he had stayed up until 3 a.m. the night before at a wrap-up party, he was smiling and thoughtful. "Ainadamar" is his first crack at writing opera, a skill that has eluded many an accomplished composer. Though not a big fan of the art form before, he says, "I do think opera has the power to bring us what [Carl] Jung called 'the collective unconscious' " - to bring very, very deep things out."

"Ainadamar" was the Moorish "Fountain of Tears," the location of the execution of Lorca by Fascists in 1936, a death that foreshadowed the bloody Spanish Civil War. Writing the piece "was a long journey, I think, because I wanted to do a different opera," set in the Middle East. he says.

"Very late in the process I felt that it wasn't going anywhere, so I abandoned it in November [2002]. By chance, I met David [Henry] Hwang [the librettist], and I spoke of my love for Lorca.... I asked him if he thought that it would be possible to make a moving piece" out of Lorca's story in a short opera.

Mr. Hwang, a veteran writer for Broadway ("M. Butterfly"), opera, and regional theater, delivered lyrics to him in March in English, which Golijov then translated into Spanish.

As is his custom, Golijov found he latched onto a visual image to help him compose. "I imagined a floating pomegranate that slowly gets ripe and bursts with bloody melodies," he says.

In his "Pasión," rhythm was the driving force. In "Ainadamar," he sought instead to write beautiful melodies. "The idea in the Pasión was to make Jesus a voice, not a person, whereas here it is to make [the idealized martyr] Lorca a [real] person. So it's the opposite, I think."

Lorca's story reminded him of how his three children take hours to make a sand castle and then destroy it in a minute. "This opera is about how fragile reality is, in all senses ... like Spain being this great, beautiful country full of poets, and the next day everybody is killing everybody.... So it's about how much love it takes to create and how little it takes to destroy."

The central figure in "Ainadamar" is not Lorca, but Margarita Xirgu, a famous Spanish actress who admired him. Margarita - played by soprano Dawn Upshaw, a frequent collaborator with Golijov - looks back on the life of Lorca and her involvement with him.

In the process, many layers of character are revealed. Margarita is "an actress with 60 years on stage - 60 layers of makeup, so to speak," Golijov says. "And by the end she is pure spirit."

Exploring his Jewish roots

In the 1980s, Golijov moved to Jerusalem for three years, which he says had a profound effect on him, both because of the music he found there "and the collision of cultures," he says. "If you are sensitive to what is going on around that place, it's just mind-boggling."

Many of his early compositions, such as "The Dreams and Prayers of Isaac the Blind," explored his Jewish roots, territory Golijov says he's more than willing to return to if, as he notes, "I feel I have something to say that I haven't said."

But in the "Pasión" and "Ainadamar," he deals with Christian, especially Roman Catholic, themes. Growing up as a Jew in a Catholic country has given him a kind of front-row seat on the culture. "I think it is a very interesting perspective," he says. "This has nothing to do with talent, but I compare [my situation] to Rembrandt and the Jews. I think that he was able to observe very deep things in the Jews [by] not being a Jew."

David Harrington, the leader of the innovative new music group the Kronos Quartet, has worked with Golijov for more than a decade. Golijov's work, Mr. Harrington says, "offers this tremendous place for musicians to inhabit.... His music offers a lot of imagery for performers to work with."

For his next commission, Golijov wants to write a group of folk songs related to cultures that experience long winters. Where he grew up, there was no cold weather. But now he lives in sometimes frosty New England. Winter can be a metaphor for many things, he says ("how you live life in winter is different from in summer"). The cold and the lack of light "always depresses me, " he says, "so this will be my exorcism!"

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