He scores emo­tions

The world-renowned com­poser Os­valdo Goli­jov was slammed by UK crit­ics for ‘sen­ti­men­tal­ity’. He tells Mark Glanville why feel­ings are key to his mu­sic

The Jewish Chronicle - - ARTS&BOOKS -

‘HE CAN cer­tainly pull them in,” re­marks a well-known fig­ure on the in­ter­na­tional opera stage sur­vey­ing the packed Bar­bican Hall in Lon­don. Ninety min­utes later, many of the au­di­ence are on their feet, pay­ing trib­ute to the mu­sic of Os­valdo Goli­jov, the Ar­gen­tinian-Jewish com­poser whose opera Ai­nadamar was given its first UK per­for­mance in a con­cert ver­sion this month.

The many re­views pub­lished on Goli­jov in re­cent days would sug­gest that, so far, the Bri­tish mu­sic press is not in step with the pub­lic. “This isn’t opera; it’s a marsh­mal­low cloud,” wrote the reviewer in The Times. The Guardian’s critic was con­cerned about the “in­dul­gent sen­ti­men­tal­ity sink­ing into the cliche of mu­si­cals, rather than con­vey­ing op­er­atic truth”.

The fo­cus of Ai­nadamar, which has won two Grammy Awards, is the re­la­tion­ship be­tween the great 20th-cen­tury Span­ish poet Fed­erico Gar­cia Lorca and the ac­tress Mar­garita Xirgu, who played the ti­tle role in the writer’s first play, Mar­i­ana Pineda.

Xirgu main­tained a close re­la­tion­ship with Lorca un­til his death dur­ing the Span­ish Civil War in 1936 at the hands of the fas­cist Falangists, close to the canal at Ai­nadamar (Ara­bic for “Foun­tain of Tears”), which sup­plied wa­ter to the city of Granada.

Goli­jov sees Lorca as a fig­ure “who was not aligned to the Com­mu­nists and was killed by the Fas­cists, so he was in the mid­dle — a spirit of free­dom that made ev­ery­body un­com­fort­able”.

The 47-year-old com­poser, who grew up in La Plata, Ar­gentina, the child of im­mi­grants from East­ern Europe, iden­ti­fies him­self with Lorca in the sense “of not be­ing aligned, of be­ing orig­i­nal rather than part of a school. [Lorca] said Spain was this great king­dom, this great em­pire, and from the mo­ment of the ex­pul­sion [of the Jews and Mus­lims], it be­came this lit­tle chau­vin­is­tic, pro­vin­cial back­yard of Europe. I want to bring back the rich­ness.”

What mo­ti­vates the mu­sic of Goli­jov is a gen­uine con­cern to dis­cover and rep­re­sent emo­tional truth. “I think I try to ex­press the emo­tion that pre­oc­cu­pies me in sound,” he says, “and I try to ex­press it with which­ever means I have at my dis­posal, or which­ever means ex­presses that emo­tion in the best pos­si­ble way, and if that means to mix di­verse things wildly, I’ll do it, and if that means to deepen in one par­tic­u­lar lan­guage, I’ll do that too.”

His choice of style and tra­di­tion for a given song or se­quence is gov­erned by the suc­cess with which a given cul­ture is able to con­vey the par­tic­u­lar feel­ing he is try­ing to por­tray at that point in the mu­sic.

Rather sur­pris­ingly, the role of Lorca’s per­se­cu­tor in Ai­nadamar, Ruiz Alonso, is pow­er­fully de­liv­ered in fla­menco style by Je­sus Mon­toya, an ex­po­nent of the An­dalu­sian cante jondo folk-song tra­di­tion Lorca cel­e­brated in his po­etry. Goli­jov ex­plains this choice by point­ing out that Alonso, though a vil­lain, is in great pain, and that no tra­di­tion evinces that emo­tion bet­ter than cante jondo. “I don’t think so much of mu­si­cal lan­guage as pop­u­lar, folk, classical in terms of colours, but rather that cer­tain cul­tures have ex­plored very spe­cific ar­eas of the hu­man soul in sound bet­ter than some com­posers.

“So, for in­stance, I would say that fla­menco or cante jondo is al­most a sci­en­tific study across gen­er­a­tions of naked grief and des­o­late pain. Tango ex­plores sex­ual provo­ca­tion. I can’t think of any com­poser who wrote that kind of mu­sic.”

More con­tro­ver­sial is his choice of singers. Goli­jov has cho­sen to work pri­mar­ily with singers from pop­u­lar and folk tra­di­tions — Mex­i­can rock singers, gyp­sies, and chaz­anim (his piece K’vakarat was writ­ten for the can­tor Misha Alexan­drovich).

He de­clares that pop­u­lar singers are more read­ily able to con­vey the emo­tional truth he is search­ing for. “They never for­got why they started. They never for­got that mu­sic is com­mu­ni­ca­tion, and I think that many times in the op­er­atic sys­tem peo­ple de­velop a cer­tain ar­mour. They have a rep­re­sen­ta­tion of the theme rather than the theme.”

His vo­cal muse, the Amer­i­can so­prano Dawn Up­shaw, he con­sid­ers not only an ex­cep­tion to this rule, but some­one who can di­ver­sify in a way pop­u­lar singers can not. “They are used to do­ing just one thing, whereas Dawn can do many, but the peo­ple that do many, some­times don’t have emo­tional truth. That’s why I’m blessed with Dawn. She has both — ver­sa­til­ity and the truth.”

A mo­ment from the Goli­jov opera Ai­nadamar, which was staged in con­cert form in Lon­don this month. Some UK crit­ics were unim­pressed, ac­cus­ing the com­poser of sink­ing into cliche

Os­valdo Goli­jov: in­spired by syn­a­gogue mu­sic

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