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Hearing the Klezmer in Golijov’s Operas

This Summer’s Tanglewood Festival, Sponsored Each Year by the Boston Symphony Orchestra, Featured Several Works by Osvaldo Golijov, of Which the Major Contribution Was Ainadamar, An Hour-Long Chamber Opera. Golijov’s Talents for Vocal and Orchestral Composition Were Evident in This Moving and Powerful Work, An Opera That Combined Movement and Dance, Exhilarating Spanish Rhythms and Touching Lyricism.

Most people learn about a composer by reading about him in newspapers, CD liner notes or printed concert programs. I got to know Golijov by accretion, first by listening to his music at a concert, preceded by an oral intro, then by meeting him, and only subsequently by reading about him and getting his CDs.

To understand how this came about we must first backtrack to the 2001 Spoleto Festival USA, held annually from late-May to mid-June in Charleston, S.C. At one of the twice-daily chamber music concerts in the historic Dock Street Theatre, artistic director Charles Wadsworth introduced a piece, “Lullaby and Doina,” by an Argentinean composer I had never heard of, played by the St. Lawrence String Quartet and clarinetist Todd Palmer. Wadsworth noted that “Lullaby and Doina” had Eastern European folk themes and some gypsy influences, especially the Romanian doina. As soon as I heard “doina,” I at once translated it to “klezmer,” for doina is one of the dances used in klezmer music.

As Wadsworth spoke, I analyzed the composer’s name. Golijov didn’t sound Spanish at all; rather, more like a typical Eastern European Jewish name. The family moved to Argentina, I supposed, to escape persecution. They had a son who was given a Spanish name, and changed the spelling from “Golichov” to “Golijov” to conform to Spanish pronunciation and orthography. So I had wrapped it up. This was going to be klezmer music by an Argentinean-Jewish composer.

But then some lemon was cast into the mix. Wadsworth added that the previous year Golijov had had an enormously successful premiere of his “Passion.” With that bit of news, my jigsaw puzzle began coming apart. A passion is usually an antisemitic text commemorating the crucifixion of Jesus. And in Germany? Echoes of the controversial and often antisemitic passion play produced every 10 years in Oberammergau, Germany, rattled in my skull.

And then Golijov’s piece began. Modern and melodic, hauntingly beautiful, here was quintessential Jewish music, superbly played and articulated by the quartet and Palmer, the brilliant clarinetist. No doubt about it, this was klezmer music, and the composer had to be a Jew. After the concert, I met Palmer coming out of the theater, congratulated him on his lovely performance and asked if Golijov was Jewish.

“Ozzie? Jewish?” Palmer said. “Why of course he is!”

Jump forward one year to the 2002 Spoleto Festival USA, where Golijov was composer in residence. I had a chance to chat with him and get his story. He was born in Argentina in 1960, where he was educated. In 1983 he moved to Jerusalem to study at the renowned Rubin Academy for three years. In 1986 he moved to the United States and received his Ph.D. from the University of Pennsylvania. Music of all kinds — classical, klezmer, liturgical, the great tangos of Astor Piazzolla, the folk rhythms and popular music of South America — all nurtured him. On a personal note, Golijov told me that a number of his relatives had made aliya and live in Israel. He noted sadly that Argentina’s synagogues, which were formerly used for prayer, now serve as soup kitchens to feed the country’s many hungry Jews.

When I told Golijov the jagged way I reasoned that he might be Jewish, he explained that the Gospel of Mark, on which he based his text for “Passion,” “is the most neutral” (read: least virulent) in its attitude toward Jews, and not only is “Lullaby” based on a Yiddish melody, but it ends with the Kaddish.

What I didn’t realize at the time, and would subsequently discover, was how profoundly Jewish a composer Golijov is. Note his composition “The Dreams and Prayers of Isaac the Blind” (a 12th century French kabbalist), which Tanglewood commissioned in 1992. The three movements of the piece, Golijov has stated, “sound to me as if they were written in the three different languages spoken by the Jew-

ish people throughout our history: Aramaic, Yiddish and Hebrew.”

Its first movement includes melodies from the High Holidays’ seminal prayer, U-Netaneh Tokef (where Jews ask: “Who shall live and who shall die?”), heard in almost Bach-like counterpoint with the Avinu Malkenu prayer. The second movement is klezmer in nature, while the third focuses on the ke-vakorat line of the U-Netaneh Tokef, which speaks of God watching over his people as a shepherd watches over his flock. In this hauntingly beautiful segment, the clarinetist, working in the high register, imitates the plaintive cry of the shofar. Only someone with a lifelong familiarity with yidishkayt would know the U-Netaneh Tokef and the ke-vakorat and be able to conceive of a musical analog to this age-old prayer.

At the 2002 Spoleto Festival USA, the Golijov work commissioned by the festival was called “Tenebrae” (from the Latin root for “darkness”). “Tenebrae” is set for soprano and small chamber group and is based on the Book of Lamentations read on Tisha B’Av to mark the destruction of the First and Second Temples in Jerusalem. Beautifully sung by soprano Courtney Budd, the singer chanted wordlessly various letters of the Hebrew alphabet and concluded with only one word: Jerusalem. In choosing this format, Golijov follows the alphabetical traditions of Lamentations. Four of the five chapters are written in alphabetical order. Three chapters have 22 verses, reflecting the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet, from aleph to taf, and one chapter has 66 verses, where each letter has three verses.

In Golijov’s music, both the musical techniques of late-20th-century Western traditions and the more melodic strands of Jewish music combine harmoniously to form a fresh, unusual and enchanting sound. Golijov not only makes use of the Ashkenazic musical tradition, but also dips into the Sephardic, as in his 1994 “Ballad of the Drowned Solitude,” based upon anonymous Ladino and Spanish texts. That same year, he also wrote Av Horachamim for cantor and string quartet, an elegiac prayer recited on Sabbaths to commemorate the deaths of martyrs of ages past.

Hearing Golijov’s music, I have concluded that he is my dream Jewish composer. He is inspired by the rich and diverse Jewish musical tradition. He takes themes from popular Jewish culture (klezmer tunes and motifs as in “Lullaby and Doina”); the liturgy (“Dreams and Prayers of Isaac the Blind” and Av Horachamim), Bible and kabbala (“Dreams and Prayers”) to create music that is inventive, original and Jewish. Golijov is probably the most consistently Jewish composer working today in the Western tradition who can assume the mantle of Ernest Bloch.

Last year, I went up to Tanglewood to hear Golijov’s “Passion,” which is formally titled “La Pasion Seguin San Marcos” (“The Passion According to St. Mark”), a work commissioned to commemorate the 250th anniversary of Bach’s death. The “Passion” is rousing and rhythmic, a pulsating and riveting work that embraces the popular melodies and beat of Latin American music. If not for the final scene, where one of the dancers who plays Jesus is symbolically beaten and nailed to the cross, I wouldn’t have known that the composition was based on Christian text. (It is sung in Spanish.) With its melodic line and dances (at one point the entire chorus dances in place: Everyone thrusts one shoulder forward rhythmically), and with members of the chorus constantly shifting places, the entire hall seems to be in motion. The all-encompassing composition ends with a Kaddish, chanted in the original Aramaic.

Curt Leviant has just published a two-novella work, “Ladies & Gentlemen, the Original Music of the Hebrew Alphabet” and “Weekend in Mustara” (University of Wisconsin Press).

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