Osvaldo Golijov on Sidereus, Henry Fogel Commissioning Consortium
Osvaldo Golijov’s chamber orchestra work Sidereus begins its 35-city tour in Memphis, with a world premiere by the Memphis Symphony Orchestra on October 16.
Commissioned by a consortium of 35 American orchestras to honor the former League of American Orchestras President and champion of classical music, Henry Fogel, Sidereus will be performed by ensembles ranging from the Reno Chamber Orchestra, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, the New England Conservatory Philharmonia the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, the Florida Orchestra, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, the Kitchener-Waterloo Symphony, and many more in coming months.
Complete performance details can be found HERE.
How did you come to be chosen to compose a piece for the Henry Fogel Commissioning Consortium? When did you learn about it?
The League of American Orchestras put this project together back in 2008 to honor Henry Fogel. I learned, I think, through Linda Golding. I like and respect Henry Fogel, so I accepted the project.
What is your relationship to Henry Fogel?
I know the work he did in Chicago and the League, and was always impressed with his mind, his longterm thinking, his love for what orchestras represent in our society, and his wisdom in helping orchestras not only to survive but to thrive, through strategies that are specific to each of the orchestras’ communities and conditions. We did a public talk in Chicago a few years ago, and I found his questions about my music thought provoking.
What does the title, Sidereus, refer to?
A book by Galileo: Sidereus Nuncius or "Sidereal Messenger.” (It’s more commonly translated as "Starry Messenger" but to me the word “sidereal” is more beautiful.) He wrote it after observing the moon for the first time with the telescope. He also discovered Jupiter's moons, and started to get into trouble with the Vatican because of the incontrovertible evidence of the intelligent observation.
What ideas are behind the piece? Is the celestial reference in the title reflected structurally or harmonically?
The realizations of Galileo referred to the new discoveries in the surface of the moon. With these discoveries, the moon was no longer the province of poets exclusively. It had also become an object of inquiry: Could there be water there? Life? If there was life, then the Vatican was scared, because, as Cardinal Bellarmino wrote to Galileo: How were the people there created? How would their souls be saved? What do we do about Adam? Wasn't he supposed to be the first man? How do we explain the origin of possible life elsewhere? What about his rib? It’s the duality: the moon is still good for love and lovers and poets, but a scientific observation can lead us to entirely new realizations.
I’d say it’s the same with Van Gogh's self-portraits; they are both incredibly expressive and pure in pattern. You see that those same brushstrokes that delve into the depths of human experience and questions also reflect the patterns of galaxies, nebulae, and exploding supernovae.
In Sidereus, the melodies and the harmony are simple, so they can reveal more upon closer examination. For the “Moon” theme I used a melody with a beautiful, open nature, a magnified scale fragment that my good friend and longtime collaborator, accordionist Michael Ward Bergeman came up with some years ago when we both were trying to come up with ideas for a musical depiction of the sky in Patagonia. I then looked at that theme as if through the telescope and under the microscope, so that the textures, the patterns from which the melody emerges and into which it dissolves, point to a more molecular, atomic reality. Like Galileo with the telescope, or getting close to Van Gogh's brushstrokes.
While many of your earlier works draw from both your Jewish and Argentinean heritage, Azul marked an expansion for you compositionally. Does Sidereus follow this change of direction?
More or less. Actually, I’d say yes, but in a simpler way than Azul. Azul has the harmonic variety, contrast, and development of a full concerto. Sidereus is an overture.
Many of your works are written with specific musicians in mind—Dawn Upshaw, the Schola Cantorum de Caracas—or are custom scored to include non-traditional instruments. But in this case, you were commissioned to write a piece for chamber orchestra—actually 35 chamber orchestras. How did this affect the composition process? What does it mean to write one piece to suit 35 different orchestras?
It certainly felt more abstract, writing a piece to be interpreted by 35 or more ensembles with different expectations, different audiences, different personalities. The challenge was trying to create something that would serve them all.
Were you in touch with any of the orchestras or individual musicians through the process?
Not really during the process, just at the end with Mei-Ann Chen, the Music Director of the Memphis Symphony Orchestra. I have to say, she’s a great musician. I revised the opening section between Thursday's rehearsal and the dress, and she and the orchestra totally nailed it, great attitude and musicianship.
Typically following a world premiere there is a significant period for revisions but in this case the piece begins touring immediately after the premiere. How will this affect the revision process?
Well, I will tinker a little more with a dark theme that opens the piece and reappears in the middle. It’s sort of an ominous question mark that tears the fabric of a piece that is essentially spacious and breathes with a strange mixture of melancholy and optimism. I hope to make all revisions very soon, so that the tour can continue. (And so I can start work on my next piece!)
It is rare for any composer to have a piece interpreted by 35 orchestras in a lifetime, let alone within one year. Will you be traveling to any of the performances?
I wish I could. Apart from the premiere in Memphis, I will be relying mostly on performance recordings. But yes, this is a rather unusual honor to have a piece of my music performed by so many orchestras in such a short time.
Osvaldo Golijov interviewed by Sarah Baird Knight, 2010.