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Celebrating a Composer Who Celebrates Multiple Cultures

Composer Osvaldo Golijov is being celebrated at New York City’s Lincoln Center with a month-long series of performances of his works, titled The Passion of Osvaldo Golijov. Musical America named Golijov composer of the year. His latest release, “Ayre” — based on traditional songs and poems in Ladino, Arabic and Hebrew — evokes the period of harmony between Jews, Muslims and Christians in Moorish Andalusia. The album has been nominated for a Grammy Award and has appeared on nearly all the top-10 lists of classical music critics.

Named for the medieval Spanish word for “air” or “song.” “Ayre,” was inspired by Luciano Berio’s masterful 1964 song cycle, “Folk Songs,” which inventively reworked traditional American, Armenian, Sicilian, Italian, French and Azerbaijani songs to create something at once recognizably old and new, distinctly ethnic as well as universal and classic.

Born in 1960 in Argentina to immigrant parents, Golijov was raised with mixed cultural and religious messages. His Ukrainian father was born to Jewish parents yet brought up devoutly atheist, while his mother’s family, devoutly Orthodox but uneducated Jews from Romania, were careful to observe the rules of the Sabbath. One memory he has of his grandfather, with whom a 7-year-old Golijov shared a room, was waking up and seeing him praying, wearing phylacteries. He drew on this memory to compose his 1994 klezmer-inflected clarinet quintet “The Dreams and Prayers of Isaac the Blind,” named for the medieval kabbalist rabbi of Provence.

Golijov learned music from his mother, who was a pianist. But his formative influence was the discovery of Astor Piazzolla, the Argentinian composer who forged music as powerful as anything by Stravinsky, but used the instruments and popular-music vocabulary of the tango. After graduation from the conservatory, Golijov felt he had to leave behind the politics of Argentina. So he went to Jerusalem to study for three years and became fascinated with Arabic music. Following that, he came to America to study with George Crumb and Oliver Knussen. After struggling to write in a “modernist” style, Golijov finally gave in to his leanings and began exploring the musical roots of his multiple cultural backgrounds.

He draws inspiration by searching other times and other places in the world, making polyglot music from very dark thoughts. His latest song cycle, for Dawn Upshaw, quotes contemporary Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish:

“I know I’ve died, leaving behind what is best of what is mine in this place: my past. I’ve got nothing left but my guitar. Be a string, water, to my guitar, Conquerors come, conquerors go…”

This is intertwined with a 12th-century Hebrew poem by Yehuda Halevy:

“Oh God, where shall I find You? Your place is high and hidden. And where shall I not find You? Your glory fills the World.”

His St. Mark Passion — one of four Passions commissioned by conductor Helmuth Rilling to commemorate the 250th anniversary of Johann Sebastian Bach’s birth — is his most ambitious work in terms of stylistic range. Set in Spanish, it is a wild Latin- and African-influenced telling of the gospel story. Golijov’s unsanctimonious riot of color has wowed audiences around the world. Indigenous percussion and dance are crucial elements, requiring specialized performers. The music ranges through batucada, flamenco, rumba, mambo, samba and — most dramatically — Brazilian capoeira, the chanting and unbelievably athletic dance art form that African slaves created centuries ago to masquerade their martial arts practice. One can sense the joy the composer felt as the musicians taught him how these indigenous forms work. When he started the composition, he was not familiar with all these different musical forms. But he knew what he wanted, and he trusted the musicians to teach him how to achieve it. Movingly, and typically, Golijov ends his carnival of a Passion not in Spanish but in Aramaic, with a Kaddish for Jesus.

His opera “Ainadamar” (“Fountain of Tears”), with a libretto by David Henry Hwang, is named for the fountain where Spanish poet and playwright Federico Garcia Lorca — one of the earliest victims of Franco’s thugs — was murdered in 1936 . The fountain commemorates a woman in the 19th century betrayed by the revolutionary she was trying to protect. Lorca’s first play was about this woman, who sought dignity in death. The opera’s main character (created for Dawn Upshaw) is the actress who originated this role in the play. She had warned him against returning to Granada, that the political situation was becoming dangerous. But like the subject of his play, the poet insisted he had to do the patriotic thing, which was to return even if he had to face death.

Raphael Mostel is a composer. Next month, the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra Brass Ensemble will give the New York premiere of his “Night and Dawn,” which was commissioned to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the liberation of the Netherlands.

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