After a Decade of Silence, a Composer Reappears

Osvaldo Golijov was one of the most celebrated stars in classical music. Then came a long, unexpected drought.

By Corinna da Fonseca-Wollheim

In 2011, the Israeli novelist David Grossman published “Falling Out of Time,” a haunting fable about a grief-stricken father who sets out on a journey to connect with his dead child.

Five years earlier, Mr. Grossman’s son Uri had been killed during his country’s war with Lebanon. As he embarked on what he thought was a work of prose, Mr. Grossman had the uncanny sense of being forced to write shorter sentences. The story began to take shape as poetry.

“Suddenly it felt so precise,” he said in a recent phone interview. “When I told my wife, she said, ‘Maybe because poetry is the closest art to silence.’”

Once published, the book found its way into the hands of Osvaldo Golijov, a composer who was then struggling through his own painful silence. Around the turn of the millennium, he had been one of the most feted stars on the classical scene, his success reflected in loud ovations, Grammys, a MacArthur “genius” grant and a concerto for Yo-Yo Ma. A Lincoln Center festival was devoted to his polyglot music, works like “La Pasión Según San Marcos” and “Ainadamar.” A once-in-a-lifetime prize beckoned: The Metropolitan Opera commissioned a new opera from him.

But though he started work on a retelling of the Iphigenia myth, about a father who sacrifices his daughter, nothing clicked, and the collaboration with the Met fizzled. He missed other important deadlines. A work in which he repurposed material developed in collaboration with a colleague drew accusations of plagiarism. Over the past 10 years, he has been all but silent.

Mr. Grossman’s “Falling Out of Time,” though, became the seed of his creative regeneration. Last month the Silkroad Ensemble released a recording of Mr. Golijov’s 80-minute song cycle based on the text: the return of a composer who had fallen from view and out of grace.

“I was really depressed,” Mr. Golijov, 59, said by phone recently, of his creative drought. “That is the shortest answer.”

“It was painful,” he added. “And then it was peaceful, and now it is liberating.”

The voice that has emerged is recognizably his: Diverse styles are woven together with skillful orchestration that can turn swiftly from luscious to tart. Vocalists from outside the Western classical tradition add emotional urgency. Yet there is a new, almost psychedelic interiority to “Falling,” which feels more experimental than Mr. Golijov’s early successes. Harrowing and hallucinogenic, this song cycle about bereavement and isolation has unintended resonance in a year that has familiarized so many with trauma and loss.

Had it not been for the coronavirus, the work would have been presented at Tanglewood and Carnegie Hall — thrusting Mr. Golijov back into the center of the classical establishment. But he has come to be wary of its accolades and the attendant hype. Asked what prompted his long block, he said, “I think a lot has also to do with commerce and expectations and people crowning you and saying, ‘Oh, it’s wonderful.’”

“They like to crown a new figure,” he added, “and then behead him. It’s an interesting ritual.”

Born in Argentina in 1960 into a family of Eastern European Jewish descent, with a mother who was a piano teacher, Mr. Golijov first took composition lessons from Gerardo Gandini, a pupil of Alberto Ginastera. He continued his studies in Jerusalem. From the beginning, his music drew on a wide spectrum of styles in works that were unabashedly melodic, iridescent and direct. The nuevo tango of Astor Piazzolla was part of his lexicon, as were klezmer, pop and Sephardic ballads. Important early pieces centered on the intimacy of the string quartet, fostered by productive collaborations with the St. Lawrence and Kronos ensembles. Emotionally forthright works like the clarinet quintet “The Dreams and Prayers of Isaac the Blind,” with its klezmer wails, and the song cycle “Ayre,” which evokes Andalusia before the 15th-century expulsion of the Jews, dance on the lines separating concert music from pop and folk.

In 2000 Mr. Golijov produced his defining hit, “La Pasión Según San Marcos,” a riotous celebration of Latin American folk music, laced with Gregorian chant and Afro-Caribbean drumming, that was commissioned to commemorate the 250th anniversary of Bach’s death. The critic Mark Swed later recalled the 25-minute ovation that followed the premiere in Stuttgart, Germany, and his feeling that “modern music history had just been made.”

With “La Pasión,” Mr. Golijov became the evangelist of a new musical syncretism, a blending of the Old and New worlds, that seemed to offer a way out of the sectarianism and musty habits of the classical industry. One of his most enthusiastic collaborators, the conductor Robert Spano, said in an interview that Mr. Golijov was “a pioneer of grouping things together that you wouldn’t obviously see belonging together without his vision.”

While Mr. Golijov was hardly the first composer to draw on folk material, his process preserved much of the fluidity of oral traditions. “The printed word, the stone tablets — he doesn’t care about that,” Mr. Spano said. “You have to respond to the energetic musical thing that’s happening in the moment, in a way that cannot be recorded and cannot be repeated. He reinvigorated in Western music’s notated tradition a respect and a sensitivity for how the oral tradition is just as real.”

Thomas W. Morris, who as artistic director of the Ojai Music Festival put Mr. Golijov in charge of the festival’s 2006 program, said in an interview that works like “La Pasión” didn’t just challenge the listener to absorb new musical voices — they also required institutions to open their doors to different performers. “To me, that’s the essence of expanding curiosity.”

Mr. Golijov’s collaborative process and knack for collage got him in hot water in 2012, when his overture “Sidereus” — commissioned by a large consortium of orchestras for a considerable sum — was discovered to contain substantial amounts of material written with a fellow composer, Michael Ward-Bergeman. Critics including Alex Ross of The New Yorker faulted Mr. Golijov for insufficient transparency regarding his sources. Though others defended him, the episode was embarrassing.

“Did it contribute to my years of apparent silence?” Mr. Golijov wrote in an email. “Yes. How much? I don’t know. I know that there were other important reasons for my years of depression, so I don’t want to blow this reason out of proportion.” He maintains that both his “Sidereus” and the work that it referenced were “born from play, from the flowing exchange of ideas” during the collaborative composition of a film score.

He said that he never really stopped composing, starting “a million things” with results that felt “always half-baked.” When he discovered Mr. Grossman’s book, while still at work on the Iphigenia opera, he said, “I realized that this was much more personal.” “Falling Out of Time” dealt with tragedy, survival and the mystery of existence.

“I had been looking for the perfect story to ask all these questions,” Mr. Golijov said.

Mr. Grossman’s text imagines a bereaved father walking in ever-widening circles, driven by questions addressed to his dead son: Where are you? What are you? And who are you there? He attracts a disparate group of fellow travelers, all driven by private griefs. His wife, though, refuses to join him. Finally, the man returns to her; though answers have eluded him, he has carved out the space to breathe inside the pain.

Mr. Golijov’s shape-shifting score conjures a walk, but not one grounded in nature. Instead, the listener shares in the vertigo of the grief-struck wanderer surveying the cratered landscape of his soul. Mr. Golijov said that what drew him to the book was the physicality of the writing. In one movement, he renders the father’s “spiritual limp” as a bass line that bumps along in a three-plus-five meter.

“Everything is embodied,” he said. “The walk. The breathing. Falling. And then the burning inside your chest. The sense of low gravity, of hovering between here and there.”

His score makes use of the wide palette of instrumental sounds offered by the Silkroad Ensemble, including those of a Chinese stringed pipa and the sheng, a mouth organ — and extends them with electronic means. An electric guitar and rock drums sometimes assert themselves and lay down a deep groove, only for the music to dissolve again into a pulseless ether.

Much of the time, the three human voices are treated as extensions of the instrumental textures. The man is sung by Wu Tong, whose voice marries echoes of his background in rock with the sweep of a balladeer. The smoky-voiced Venezuelan vocalist Biella Da Costa is the woman who refuses to join her husband on his journey, but surveys his movements from a belfry. The vocalist Nora Fischer slips into different roles, including a writer-centaur — half man and half desk — and the members of the group of fellow travelers, all of whom have lost a child.

In rendering the anguish of the bereaved, the singers push their voices to extremes, including wordless groans and cries that blend eerily with the sounds of certain instruments. A high, glassy scream by Ms. Fischer morphs into a synthesizer’s siren wail. Wu Tong’s serrated howl lifts out of splintering strings.

Even before he had read Mr. Grossman’s book, Mr. Golijov said, he had come across an organization of bereaved Israeli and Palestinian parents. Its founder, Yitzhak Frankenthal, told the story of one father who was so distraught that he slept on his child’s grave for days. Mr. Frankenthal kept the man company until he was able to return to his bed.

“The natural thing is to avert the gaze,” Mr. Golijov said. “This piece is the opposite: ‘I see you and I will accompany you up to the point where it is possible to accompany you.’”

Mr. Grossman likened the music to a Jewish fable about a village simpleton who lets out a piercing whistle in synagogue. When the other worshipers grow angry, the rabbi stops them; the whistle had ripped the heavens, so their prayers could reach their divine target. “There are parts in the music of Osvaldo that are like this,” Mr. Grossman said. “That are tearing the sky open, and something goes without any obstacle, without any hesitation, just goes up there.”

As for his period of paralysis, Mr. Golijov said it had yielded to a feeling of freedom. Since the pandemic hit earlier this year, he said, he has been writing “like crazy.”

He has made peace with himself over the missed deadlines, the public speculation over his creative block, the sense that the spotlight is no longer on him.

“We come into the world to do something,” he said. “So I wrote less music than what I wish I had written. But I wrote things that stay.”

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