It is a great honor to be with you on this occasion. I thank Jan and Marica Vilcek for their kind invitation to take part in honoring a remarkable musician and artist, Osvaldo Golijov. Ellis Rubinstein’s introduction provoked some surprisingly strong personal reactions for me and I want to wholeheartedly second his remarks about the tone of the current debate about immigration. Much of the rhetoric about immigration has been astonishingly closed-minded, fearful, ignorant and simply mean-spirited. As an immigrant myself, even one of very long standing in this country, it is hard not to take some of the harshest comments personally and begin to wonder if one is truly welcome here. And so it is particularly meaningful to be here tonight as part of a tribute to the contributions of immigrants to American life. This event serves as healing balm to the current malady of xenophobia in American politics.
I also want to thank Marica for her vivid and lovely reminiscence about her arrival in the United States, as they triggered some memories, which I had not thought about for some 46 years. My memories are not quite so vivid – I cannot describe the weather or the sky on that memorable day in April 1962 when my family landed in Boston’s Logan airport, having traveled to the United States from Beirut via London. I was a child and so some of my memories are received memories from the experiences of my parents and older brother. But there was no mistaking the palpable sense of relief we all felt in that blessed moment of arrival, having known persecution and displacement in our unhappy departure from our original home. I look at the opportunity that my family found and the life that I was able to create for myself with continued amazement and profound gratitude. It is that sense of possibility that continues to bring new waves of immigration to the United States.
And so, in thinking about Osvaldo Golijov, it is perhaps fitting to begin with a quote from another immigrant, the great Palestinian-American literary and cultural critic Edward Said. In an essay from 2000 titled “Reflections on Exile,” Edward wrote:” Most people are principally aware of one culture, one setting, one home; exiles are aware of at least two, and this plurality of vision gives rise to an aware¬ness of simultaneous dimensions, an awareness that – to borrow a phrase from music – is contrapuntal. “
Osvaldo is an embodiment of this multiplicity of vision. It originates from his wonderfully complicated personal geography. Born into an Eastern European Jewish fami¬ly transplanted to Argentina, he was pro¬foundly influenced by his years in Jerusalem, that unique crossroads of overlapping, inter¬twined and conflicting cultures. His work grows naturally out of these experiences, true to music’s ability to be deeply rooted in a specific place and, paradoxically, at the same time to transcend borders and cultural boundaries. At his childhood home in Ar¬gentina, Osvaldo heard European chamber music, Jewish traditional chants and klezmer melodies, as well as encountering the new tango pioneered by Astor Piazzolla.
As you can tell from even that brief summary, there are multiple sources filling this remarkable well of creativity. Osvaldo does not limit himself to choose one cultural or musical identity but, rather, he basks unabashedly in the complex overlapping of cultures. He is one of the most unexpected and innovative figures in American music and yet, in a way, he is representative of a long tradition.
There is a rich history of émigrés enriching American culture and certainly American musical life. Think for example, how the tragedy of slavery nonetheless has infused our music with the wealth of African and African-American musical traditions.
In more recent times, classical music in America has been infinitely enriched by the many creative refugees lucky enough to flee Nazi Germany and war-torn Europe to find have in this country. It would be impossible to list all of the festivals, orchestras, conservatories, chamber music series, and opera companies whose recent histories were shaped by this influx of creative talent.
In our time, there has been a new wave of immigration particularly from Asia as well as Central and South America that has brought new and unexpected vitality to American musical culture. Osvaldo is leading member of this generation and we are all the luckier for his presence here.
I want to draw your attention to two emblematic works of Osvaldo that demonstrate his fearless creativity and expressive power. One originates in a gesture of startling audacity from a bastion of Old World culture. The year 2000 brought worldwide commemorations of the 250th anniversary of the death of J.S. Bach. To mark the occasion, the distinguished German choral conductor Helmuth Rilling had the inspired idea of commissioning four musical tellings of Christ’s Passion as a modern homage to Bach’s masterful musical Passions. But imagine the literal leap of faith in asking a Jewish composer of Latin origin to write a modern-day musical Passion. Osvaldo Golijov’s “La Pasion Segun San Marco” (St. Mark Passion) is a profoundly affecting work that somehow combines Afro-Latin rhythms and traditions, Jewish liturgical chant, and a true understanding of Bach’s dramatic language and spirituality. It is a work that is somehow deeply reflective of the Christian tradition and, at the same time, embracing of a broadly human vision.
Like so much of Osvaldo’s music, it reflects a vivid, powerful expressive imagination. There is a generous, exuberant, passionate spirit that shines through his music. And, more personally, I would add that a great generosity of spirit defines his rare gift of friendship.
There is one other work that I would like to bring to your attention. And if I do nothing more than intrigue you enough to encounter this work on your own, my time here tonight will have been well spent. In 2003, Osvaldo was commissioned to write a new work for soprano Dawn Upshaw as part of the opening season of the new Zankel Hall, the adventurous underground hall at Carnegie Hall. The work that resulted, “Ayre,” is music of almost overwhelming imagination and dramatic power. It combines such unlikely elements as a medieval Sephardic lullabies, a Christian Arab Easter Hymn, music from 18th century Sardinia, and the words of the contemporary Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish. Osvaldo’s complex view of this is as multi-layered as the stones of Jerusalem. Without sentimentality and with clear vision, he sees the conflicts and sorrows in these overlapping cultures, while still finding grace in the overriding humanity that binds them all.
We have a lovely bonus for you tonight, an unexpected departure from the program. As I mentioned, “Ayre” was written for the great American soprano Dawn Upshaw, who has been a passionate champion of Osvaldo’s music and a constant source of inspiration. I’m very happy to tell you that she is here with us tonight. Please welcome Osvaldo Golijov’s great friend and creative partner, Dawn Upshaw.
Ara Guzelimian, March 26, 2008