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.”