The yiddishkeit of classical music

Jewish Argentinian composer Osvaldo Golijov weaves his varied influences into dynamic, moving pieces

Composer Osvaldo Golijov at a master class in the Harvard Hillel. (Photo credit: Emil Cohen)
Composer Osvaldo Golijov at a master class in the Harvard Hillel. (Photo credit: Emil Cohen)

Osvaldo Golijov is not a particularly loud person. Dressed in a conservative black suit, a blue shirt and tie, and sleek rimless glasses, his demeanor is poised, calm even. But Golijov’s placid façade belies his diverse upbringing and creative capacity. Golijov, 51, is a world-renowned composer of cutting-edge classical music, which he often infuses with themes from his Jewish Argentinian upbringing.

Golijov’s music reflects a multiplicity of cultural influences, from tango to Klezmer. He grew up in La Plata, Argentina, but has also studied and lived in Israel and the United States. Since 1991, he has been the Loyola Professor of Music at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts. On April 2, his travels brought him to Beren Hall at Harvard Hillel in Cambridge, Massachusetts, accompanied by the acclaimed St. Lawrence String Quartet (Geoff Nutall and Scott St. John, violin; Lesley Robinson, viola; Christopher Costanza, cello). During the event, the quartet played the composer’s “Yiddishbbuk” and a movement from “Qohelet.” After the performances, Golijov and members of the quartet participated in conversation to illuminate his compositions’ musical, emotional, and religious logic.

It was in “Yiddishbbuk” that Golijov found himself as a composer, largely due to his close collaboration with the SLSQ, with whom he has worked since the 1990s. “I don’t suffer when it’s played,” he told the audience. The name “Yiddishbbuk” is derived from an apocryphal book of Psalms; its few remains are hidden in the notebooks of Franz Kafka. According to Golijov, each of the piece’s three movements “is a little bit of the Jewish 20th century,” titled by the initials of Jewish cultural figures.

The first movement memorializes three children killed at Terezin whose art and poetry appear in I Never Saw Another Butterfly; the second movement commemorates author Isaac Bashevis Singer, in whose stories Golijov detected rhythms that inspired his compositions; the third movement honors composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein. The music itself was gritty, performative, and rich with engaging harmonics. An enraptured audience eagerly applauded the performance.

The quartet also played a movement from Golijov’s work-in-progress “Qohelet,” which is inspired by the book of Ecclesiastes. Golijov compared it to a motorcycle ride, with Scott St. John, who played first violin in the piece, serving as melody above rhythmic layering from the other strings.

Composer Golijov and the St. Lawrence String Quartet: Geoff Nutall and Scott St. John, violin; Lesley Robinson, viola; Christopher Costanza, cello. (photo credit: Emil Cohen)
Jonah Steinberg and the St. Lawrence String Quartet: Geoff Nutall and Scott St. John, violin; Lesley Robinson, viola; Christopher Costanza, cello. (photo credit: Emil Cohen)

As Golijov deconstructed “Yiddishbbuk” for the audience, his musical logic became clear. For instance, he described attempts to capture “the flickering of the Jewish candles” in the second movement, which he achieved by demanding an especially aggressive vibrato from the musicians. As Constanza, the quartet’s cellist, said, “conventional notation doesn’t do the trick” in Golijov’s compositions.

“My music tends to be very gestural,” Golijov said. His statement was far from empty. He prioritizes the way music is played as much as the music itself. The quartet’s rendering of “Yiddishbbuk” departed from most performances of classical music, as the musicians moved vigorously throughout the piece. The quartet’s physicality reflected their deep emotional and musical connection to the piece. Nutall, who played first violin in “Yiddishbbuk,” competently led the quartet’s musical and physical gestures, almost jumping out of his chair while he bowed.

Rabbi Jonah Steinberg, PhD, the executive director of Harvard Hillel, noted that Golijov is musically inspired by Judaism. As a contrast, he asked the quartet members, “Where do you go to find what you just did?” Though religious fervor may not govern their performance, the musicians were far from disengaged participants. Golijov has “a powerful way of describing where he’s coming from emotionally,” Nutall said. “Music is the most powerful way of expressing these emotions.”

‘The idea is to transcend the origins’

While Golijov acknowledged his own Jewish influences, he does not believe religiosity is a necessary condition for connecting with his music. “The idea is to transcend the origins,” he said. For the composer, these origins are diverse. Golijov’s home country is mostly Catholic. During his youth, however, he shared a bedroom with his great-grandfather, whom he watched pray in Hebrew and Yiddish. After attending conservatory in Argentina, Golijov moved to Israel, where he had “sort of a second childhood.” Having grown up surrounded by Ashkenazi Jews, he was exposed to Sephardic, Arabic, and Christian music for the first time. This cultural hodge-podge permeates his compositions.

Moreover, Golijov’s linguistic facility allows him to engage with “many musical languages.” He believes that “certain cultures have explored certain aspects of the human soul others haven’t.” For example, when Golijov attempts to write about the feeling of desolation, he draws upon Spanish flamenco. “It’s a dialogue,” he said, comparing the musical contributions of various cultures to different rabbinical interpretations of Jewish texts.

“There are so many different ways to say, ‘To be, or not to be,’ ” he said.

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