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Oh, the comparisons

Composer Osvaldo Golijov is unafraid of breaking the mold. But he's nervous about being called the next Mozart.

October 13, 2002|Paul Lieberman | Times Staff Writer

Lenox, Mass. — The talk about him and Mozart began innocently enough, as a midsummer joke.

Osvaldo Golijov was at the annual music festival on Cape Cod for a performance of his "The Dreams and Prayers of Isaac the Blind." When the players finished it, they beckoned him onto the stage of the Brewster Baptist Church to share the audience's standing ovation, a form of ego stroking the 41-year-old composer has had to get used to of late.

If there was any danger of it going to his head, his family was there to make sure it didn't.

Before the concert, his wife kidded him about a feature in the local newspaper that said it took "the devotion of a saint" to produce works like his. Silvia Golijov said, "Yeah, devotion of a saint wife."

Two of his children got him next. When the Borromeo String Quartet launched into Golijov's musical interpretation of Jewish prayer, 7-year-old Anna curled onto her mom's lap -- and fell asleep. Brother Yoni, 12, at least pretended to pay attention to the music, in which his dad asks the performers to imagine themselves "shivering before God." But five minutes in, Yoni closed his eyes and slumped forward in feigned slumber. Papa nudged him in the ribs, and up he popped.

The musicians did their part, as well, as soon as they concluded the concert with a chorus singing the sublime "Ave Verum Corpus," a three-minute work that Mozart wrote in the last months of his life. Backstage, as they packed their instruments, Golijov set himself up by gushing how "one concert that would be really great would be to play the 'Ave Verum' 10 times--just the 'Ave Verum.' "

The evening's soloist, clarinetist Todd Palmer, grabbed him by the shoulders and laughed.

"Ozzie, even if you do get great someday," he said, "you'll never be as great as Mozart."

"You have to know you're gonna die!" Golijov protested. "Then it's easy!"

And that was it, a little jesting among friends, until a couple of weeks later, when someone else used Golijov's name in the same sentence with Mozart's ... and this time they weren't joking.

Perhaps a baseball player would be flattered to be called the next Babe Ruth, or an artist the new Picasso.

What Golijov said then was, "That's very stupid."

One work changed it all

The burden of such comparisons was hardly one of Osvaldo Golijov's worries two years ago, when he was the least known of four composers who had been asked to produce Passions to commemorate the 250th anniversary of Bach's death. Though he had a following in chamber music circles for his intense string pieces, Golijov was well off the radar screen of the public and had never produced a full concert-length work, much less anything like Bach's stirring Passions based on the Gospels of Matthew and John.

But they wanted a diversity of voices for the Bach celebration, and he was a good bet to provide that, a Jew from Argentina raised on the classics and tango alike before settling in a Boston suburb -- and a member of the generation of young composers not tied to any musical "ism" except eclecticism.

Golijov gave them a different Jesus indeed, not a pale European one, but a dark Latin American. He gave them different music too, in bold leaps of style and mood: a few traditional arias, sure, but mixed with rumba, flamenco, tango. And why couldn't Jesus shake a pair of maracas as he crossed the stage? Why couldn't his persecutors push him along the road to crucifixion with dance-like Brazilian martial arts, including a twirling kick to the face?

When "La Pasion Segun San Marcos" debuted in Stuttgart in September 2000, it was hard to tell how all this was going over. The German audience sat silently for an hour and a half and, despite the intense Latin rhythms, not a head was seen to bob, or a foot tap. Then the music ended, and they cheered for 20 minutes. Five months later, the North American premiere set off pandemonium again.

By this summer, Golijov's Passion still had been performed only a handful of times and had been seen by fewer people than go to a single Bruce Springsteen show. But that was enough to gain it a page full of critics' blurbs like those normally found in blaring movie ads: "the first indisputably great composition of the 21st century," "genius," "timeless." The New Yorker said the piece had "a revolutionary air, as if musical history were starting over."

That buzz was in the air when Golijov embarked this year on what was, in essence, a six-month victory lap. The Passion would not be performed until the end, at the Tanglewood Music Festival here in the Berkshires, setting the stage for its New York and West Coast premieres, the latter Friday and Saturday at the Orange County Performing Arts Center. Before that, Golijov was composer-in-residence everywhere you turned, unveiling smaller works from an imagination seemingly expanding by the moment.

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