In the summer of 1992 the young members of the St. Lawrence Quartet were trying to make a mark in the competitive string-quartet world.
As students at Massachusetts' famous Tanglewood Festival, they had been assigned to perform a new composition by a composer they had never heard of.
An Eastern European-Argentinean-American Jew who mixed Klezmer and tango with classical styles? Come on.
But Osvaldo Golijov was "their" composer, and they waited expectantly for the piece. And waited.
Finally the composition arrived in dribs and drabs. As they played it, anxiety turned to despair. They could make no sense of it.
"It was hate at first sight," the 44-year-old Golijov said recently with a laugh. "I was late with the piece, they were totally distrustful, there was a lot of tension."
The Argentinean-born composer recalled the moment recently from his adopted home of Boston, where he teaches at Holy Cross and Boston Conservatory.
The quartet panicked.
"Suddenly you get this piece that, for us, an inexperienced group, looked like cacophony on the page," said St. Lawrence second violinist Barry Schiffman. "Plus there was more of it coming in all the time. I was a little hostile at first."
The decisive moment in the development of "Yiddishbbuk" came when Golijov arrived in Tanglewood and attended the quartet's rehearsal.
"After you speak to Osvaldo for a few minutes, you're his friend," Schiffman said. By the end of the rehearsal, he said, all was forgiven.
"One of us asked him, 'Ozzie can you sing it?'" Schiffman said. "What he's written, you have to know, is impossible to sing. But as he sang, he became transformed, he was in another world."
The musicians were in awe, he said, "not just of how beautiful the music was, but of how convinced he was of his compositional voice. We were humbled."
Soon the music world also would be in awe of Golijov, whose current projects include a movie score for Francis Ford Coppola and the revision of his opera "Ainadamar" ("Fountain of Tears") for the Santa Fe Opera.
"Yiddishbbuk" was one of the sensations of that year's Tanglewood Festival, and buzz surrounded the composer who dared to mix popular and classical styles without it sounding like "crossover" or "fusion."
The St. Lawrence's recording of "Yiddishbbuk" became a classical best seller and was nominated for a 2003 Grammy Award for best composition.
And in the decade since his work's introduction at Tanglewood, Golijov has become the most-talked-about composer of his generation.
Golijov was raised in an Argentina full of culture and terror. Schooling and music lessons intermingled with dead bodies in streets and classmates called off for interrogation who often never returned.
His father was a doctor, his mother a piano teacher. The family lived comfortably southeast of Buenos Aires, but the Dirty War changed Argentine life irrevocably.
"I had many friends who were tortured and whose older siblings disappeared," Golijov said.
Neighbors would report on each other. When youths disappeared, "you'd hear grown-ups say, 'They must have done something .'"
The worst part, he said, was that "you get used to the most terrible things, just like in the concentration camps. People lived there and there was a semblance of what you might call normal life."
Nevertheless he grew up immersed in classical music, Jewish liturgical music, Klezmer folk music and the "new tango" of Astor Piazzolla.
With such diversity in his blood and culture, he said that synthesizing the styles came naturally.
"I don't think really so much of which tradition I'm using," he said. "For each emotion, there are specific traditions that serve it well."
Golijov studied piano and composition. Later, at the University of Pennsylvania, he worked with avant-gardist George Crumb.
Crumb was patient with him, he said, and taught him a lot about orchestration, technique and finding a voice. A composer who finds a voice stands out.
"When there is hegemony, you have little Schoenbergs and little Boulezes running around," he said of the two much-emulated 20th-century masters. "And then you have one Piazzolla."
His works during the 1990s drew ever more attention, with champions like the Kronos Quartet (for whom he has written more than 30 works).
Plus, he was all over the musical map. He collaborated with Mexican rock band Cafe Tacuba, the Romanian gypsy band Taraf de Haidouks (who played his music on the soundtrack of the Johnny Depp movie "The Man Who Cried"), Klezmer clarinetist David Krakauer and film director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu ("21 Grams").
His biggest splash so far was his "St. Mark Passion," a 90-minute expanse of choral-orchestral music composed for conductor Helmuth Rilling.
The work embraced tango, Bach, symphonic music, Klezmer, Christianity and Judaism, and caused a frenzy among the German audience at its Stuttgart premiere.
"For both nights," Rilling said, "half an hour after the concert, people were still in that hall, screaming." The CD of the work received Grammy and Latin Grammy nominations in 2002.
Golijov said he is enjoying his 40s as a Bostonian, with his wife and three children. If he has a concern, it's keeping his musical edge.
He worries that he's not taking the risks he did in his 20s. It's hard to "hear your own voice" when the "machinery" of the music business intrudes.
"When you have success, you are called by this orchestra or that orchestra for commissions," he said. "Maybe that orchestra is not your language, not your voice."
That "edge" was what caused Tanglewood to pair him with St. Lawrence in the first place. Schiffman thinks it was the quality of "abandonment" in his quartet's playing that meshed well with the composer's own audacious amalgamation styles.
"Yiddishbbuk," as Franz Kafka wrote, was a collection of apocryphal psalms that had circulated among Eastern European Jews and survive only in a few fragments. Golijov has created a three-movement work that attempts a musical counterpart to those fragments.
The movements are titled with initials of five people he commemorates in the piece: three concentration camp children, author Isaac Bashevis Singer and conductor Leonard Bernstein.
It made a deep impression on that first audience and has taken on a life of its own.
"I'm usually surprised if something turns out good," Golijov said with a laugh.
As for Golijov's relationship with St. Lawrence, both parties said they've moved from hostility to affection.
"I was blown away by them," Golijov said of the first meeting. "They are my best friends now and the musicians with whom I feel most closely connected. We grew together."
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