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A Different Kind of Blues

By Robin Tabachnik
06 Sep 2013

Osvaldo Golijov

Argentinian composer Osvaldo Golijov, whose music bedecks the Opening Gala, speaks about his approach to composing, Yo-Yo Ma, and the New York Philharmonic.

Music Director Alan Gilbert is opening the New York Philharmonic season with Argentine composer Osvaldo Golijov’s Azul (Blue).

This homage to the incomparable gifts of cellist Yo-Yo Ma, the evening’s soloist, is a concerto that, like all Golijov’s works, is soulful, searing, and just plain unforgettable. Ma will also perform an arranged suite from La serie del Ángel by Astor Piazzolla, a compatriot of Golijov whom he credits with wielding a great influence over his style. The evening begins and ends with the Spanish side of Ravel, Alborada del gracioso and Boléro, respectively. All in all, a charmingly eclectic autumn rhapsody, with a touch of the new, thanks to Golijov’s presence on the program.

Golijov, still young as a composer, has been much celebrated — Lincoln Center Festival devoted a week-long festival to his works, he is a Grammy winner, and his film scores are sought after by the likes of Francis Ford Coppola — but this will be the first time the Philharmonic is performing his music in Avery Fisher Hall. “I feel so honored!” he exclaims. “I grew up in the ’60s with those fabulous, inspiring recordings of Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic. And I’ve known Alan for a long, long time: when I came to the U.S., I was lucky enough to be accepted as an auditing student at The Curtis Institute of Music, where Alan was studying conducting.”

This composer is drawn by the sound and demeanor of a specific artist to inspire his compositions. “Yo-Yo’s sound has such nobility; I wanted to convert the majesty of his sound into a majestic piece — his playing is transcendental. When I originally composed Azul, it was for Yo-Yo and the Boston Symphony. He has the ability to sustain a sound and make it change meaning; I call it cosmic bowing! He has played for many decades with the BSO and the piece was to be premiered outdoors in Tanglewood, so my original version was conceived as a gathering of many friends under the stars with the orchestra acting like a huge antenna receiving a signal from the soloist who carried it from the sky, making the soloist a slow-moving comet. Other soloists have played the piece in other venues, so it has come to mean other things — as long as there is always an intersection between the composer’s mind and that of the soloist!”

Osvaldo Golijov was born in La Plata, Argentina, to Eastern-European Jewish parents — his mother is a pianist, his father, a physician and great music lover. Music study at the local conservatory as well as in synagogue fascinated him, inspiring him to seek advanced study with Mark Kopytman at the Rubin Academy in Jerusalem, where he moved in 1983. Three years later he relocated to the United States to earn his Ph.D. at the University of Pennsylvania under the tutelage of one of his hero-composers, George Crumb.

Golijov has created a remarkable and varied body of works drawing inspiration from colleagues in all walks of musical life. Collaborations with the St. Lawrence and Kronos String Quartets yielded such acclaimed chamber music as Yiddishbbuk and The Dreams and Prayers of Isaac the Blind. Dawn Upshaw’s intelligence and plangent soprano inspired most of his vocal music, including several orchestral song cycles and his much acclaimed opera Ainadamar. But many fi rst heard Golijov’s name through the success of La Pasión según San Marcos (St. Mark Passion, of 2000), commissioned by Helmuth Rilling for the European Music Festival commemorating the 250th anniversary of J.S. Bach’s death.

All this has made Golijov a white-hot property as a pedagogue, and students have fl ocked to his classes in Carnegie Hall, Tanglewood, and College of the Holy Cross in Massachusetts (where he is Loyola Professor of Music), no doubt to divine the secret of his golden touch. But Golijov concedes that the secret is simple: to soak up as much music as a thirsty musical soul can absorb. “Two opposing aspects to my life came to infl uence me when I arrived in Israel,” recalls Golijov. “One, of course, was the wonderful Israel Philharmonic and the fantastic way they performed. The other was the languages and music of the streets, which formed the most incredible melting pot. Linguistically and musically my mind and heart were so open to this — all I had to do was listen. It was like a fabulous second childhood.”

Wonderful things are in store for Osvaldo Golijov. Within three years New York Philharmonic audiences can cross Lincoln Center Plaza to hear his new opera at The Met. However, this is all he will divulge on the subject because, as he translates the Spanish saying, “The project is in diapers.”

Still, he is willing to admit that he is now at a crossroads in his life. “Success, as wonderful as it feels, produces a lot of noise,” says Golijov. “When you are young, your own energy propels you, but in this decade between age 50 and 60 you realize that you are not here forever. So I must turn inward and be grateful to be able to say what I want through music; especially this fall, because I will be saying it with Yo-Yo Ma, Alan Gilbert, and the New York Philharmonic.”

Robin Tabachnik is a New York–based arts and culture journalist who writes frequently for Playbill, Town & Country, and IN New York magazine.




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