Osvaldo Golijov was born in 1960 in La Plata, Argentina, a culturally diverse college town 40 miles from Buenos Aires, to a pair of university professors—an orthopedic surgeon and a piano teacher. He grew up Jewish, religious, in a Catholic country, and spent much of his childhood at the synagogue. “I basically lived there,” he says, acknowledging the sense of isolation he often felt. Ethnically Eastern European and culturally Latin American, he is of both the old world and new, an outsider and insider, a doer and observer. One way of looking at it is: You couldn’t ask for finer ingredients in the recipe for a groundbreaking millennial composer.

As a boy, Golijov was intelligent, studious, and musically gifted. His mother, who gave up her performing career to become a teacher and to raise her four children, pushed him to excel and taught him what he calls “the happiness of studying.” She also trained him to be a classical pianist, so that by age 10 he was well-schooled in the works of Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, and Schubert. Then, his forward-thinking mother decided it was time to immerse young Osvaldo in the newest music of the day. One evening in 1970, she took him to a hotel café in their hometown to hear Astor Piazzolla, the legendary Argentinean composer and bandoneón player whose then-controversial nuevo tango incorporated elements of jazz and classical music with the traditional Argentine dance form.

“That was a defining moment for me. I had never heard a living composer play his own music,” says Golijov, glancing in the direction of his young daughter—about the same age as he was then. “And hearing Piazzolla for the first time was the great revelation of my life. I could see right away that his counterpoint was as intricate as Bach’s. Yet I could also make an immediate, startling connection between his musical vernacular and the way people talk on the streets of Argentina. Listening to his phrasing, I remember thinking, I understand. I know where that accent comes from!” That night in the hotel café transformed Golijov from a performer to a composer.

Golijov attended many performances by Piazzolla throughout his childhood, but was too shy to approach his hero, whose feisty personality could not have been more different than his own (Piazzolla was known to break into fisticuffs during arguments over his music.) Likewise, Piazzolla was never cognizant of the existence of his musical heir apparent, for Golijov was only just beginning to come into his own voice at the time of the elder composer’s death.

“I never spoke to him, but I’ve dreamed of him many times,” Golijov says. “In 1991, after Piazzolla suffered his second stroke, I composed the piece Last Round as an imaginary opportunity for his spirit to get up and fight one more time.” Last Round, whose title is borrowed from a short story on boxing by Julio Cortazar, is scored for two string quartets and double bass, and was officially premiered in England in 1996. It appears on Golijov’s 2002 album Yiddishbbuk (EMI), performed by the St. Lawrence and Ying quartets. But its second (and most Piazzolla-like movement) was drafted while Gollijov was still in graduate school at Penn, and first performed at the Painted Bride Art Center by a group of students from the Curtis Institute shortly before Piazzolla’s death.

“After Piazzolla died in 1992, I dreamed that he was listening to Last Round,” says Golijov with wistful irony. “And he said to me, ‘It’s good, Osvaldo. But it’s too late.’”

As Golijov reached adolescence, his world began to crumble. During the infamous “Dirty War” that consumed Argentina from 1976-1983, thousands of artists, intellectuals, and dissidents were “disappeared,” including some of Golijov’s friends and neighbors. “It was impossible to live there and not know someone who had been kidnapped or tortured. My parents were politically liberal and considered moving to Israel or Australia, but in the end it was I who left. I felt that, as a Jew, I would always be a second-class citizen in Argentina. This was not my war, and I wasn’t ready to risk my life in a battle that wasn’t my own.”

Golijov spent the next three years studying composition at the Jerusalem Rubin Academy. His mentor there was Russian-Jewish composer Mark Kopytman, whose compositions make frequent use of elements of Jewish folklore. Kopytman had been a visiting professor of music at Penn in the early 1980s, and encouraged Golijov to apply to the University’s Ph.D. program in composition. Golijov arrived in Philadelphia in 1986. He was quickly taken under the wing of avant-garde composer George Crumb, Annenberg Emeritus Professor in the Humanities, whose idiosyncratic, cerebral works present frequent juxtapositions of Western and Eastern musical styles, and who shares Golijov’s fascination with García Lorca.

“I was very lucky to have the opportunity to study with George Crumb,” says Golijov. “Although his music and mine couldn’t be more different, his teaching completely transformed me. He taught me a lot about compositional technique and orchestration. And he encouraged me to find my own voice. He is part of the essence of who I am as a composer.”

In the beginning, there was a communication gap of comic proportions. “Mr. Crumb, of course, has a heavy West Virginia accent, and I spoke with my own heavy accent. For a long time, we couldn’t understand a word each other said. Still, I learned, if not always in a conscious, deliberate way. I listened as he played Chopin in his office in between students. I absorbed everything I watched him do. This was the greatest thing that happened to me at Penn. It’s like old Hasidic legend, where the student decides to learn by watching the rabbi tie his shoes. Everything the great man does, you watch and you learn something.”

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©2006 The Pennsylvania Gazette
Last modified 08/31/06

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