Osvaldo Golijov is an Argentinian of Eastern European Jewish descent living in Boston at the start of the 21st century, and his music is in many ways an exploration of what exactly all of that means. His grand project, and the music it has produced, has struck a chord with contemporary audiences and performers, making him one of the most in-demand composers in the United States.
His string quartet Yiddishbuk and his Dreams and Prayers of Isaac the Blind (for quartet and clarinet) borrow from European Jewish musical to explore Jewish themes. La Pasión según San Marcos retells the the death of Jesus using musics from across the Americas, using actual performers from the different styles — including Brazilian jazz singer Luciana Souza and Afro-Cuban singer/dancer Reynaldo González Fernández, in one recording — then dares to include a Kaddish sung for the persecuted Jew at the heart of the story.
For soprano Dawn Upshaw, Golijov created Ainadamar, a nonlinear opera telling the life of gay Spanish poet Federico García Lorca through the eyes of his friend Margarita Xirgu (sung by Upshaw), and a response to Luciano Berio's Folk Songs, entitled Ayre, that borrows its tunes from Spanish, Jewish and Arab traditions. Both pieces add the electronic beatmaking skills of superstar Argentinian rock producer Gustavo Santaolalla into the stew of cultures and demand raw, visceral vocalism even from their classically-trained singers.
Golijov has been championed by many of the classical world's brightest stars, including Yo-Yo Ma and the Kronos Quartet, but, relentlessly self-critical, he has created an intensely focused body of work, both relatively compact and tightly interconnected. "Lúa Descolorida," a song written for Upshaw, reappears in the Pasión, and K'in Sventa Ch'ul Me'tik Kwadulupe for quartet and tape, written for the Mexican-themed Golijov/Kronos/Santaolalla collaboration Nuevo, turns up again in the score of Ainadamar.
It's as if Golijov's infallible dramatic sense were telling him that the emotions inherent in one musical/dramatic context, in one culture, on one continent, could be transplanted halfway around the world without losing their meaning. Perhaps this notion is at the very heart of Golijov's globe-spanning musical project — and key to the breadth of its appeal.