Planning and programming was still under way when I spoke to Argentine composer Osvaldo Golijov during the quiet final week of 2019. He will be the composer-in-residence at this year's edition of the Kuhmo Chamber Music Festival, that is being programmed under the banner “The Art of Illusion”. He was yet to see a final list of works to be performed, but spoke excitedly about what is Finland's largest chamber music festival and was quick to take a shine to the theme.

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Osvaldo Golijov
© Yoni Golijov

He laughed often during our conversation – not necessarily about things he found funny but about his love for other composers, about his own speculations and uncertainty, about what might at times come off as a lack of humility and about the “tricks” composers can play to put ideas into the minds of the audience. Such tricks are promptly put on the table when the subject of illusion is proposed. Golijov delights in what are the tricks (his words) to be found in the works of the great Romantics and in his beloved Haydn, and readily points to similar illusions embedded in his own works.

“I think early Debussy was more about illusion and later on he was perhaps more concerned with grammar, with a more streamlined way of telling things,” he enthused. “I think Mahler is an illusionist and so is Wagner.”

“Sometimes an illusion can be so simple, like that very, very short illusion of light appearing in the universe of Haydn’s Creation that’s just a D major scale going up and it’s extraordinary,” he continued. “Somebody that I love immensely, like Ravel, takes a million different tricks to do that, and it's the same with Strauss and Wagner, right? There are all kinds of levels to illusion. I would love to do illusions more like Haydn, with very, very simple means, to create these extraordinary illusions of which I can see the light there.”

“The Haydn, it just kills me every time I play it,” he added. “It’s less that 40 seconds and yet it is truly just mind-boggling. I’m thinking of writing a Creation eventually, so I’m looking at the piece relatively carefully and I’m just amazed at the genius and innocence of everything there.”

The light in Haydn's Creation may well have inspired a smaller shaft of light in Golijov's Mariel for cello and marimba, one of more than a dozen of his works that will be heard during two weeks in July at Kuhmo. The composer will also be present for a reception and an onstage interview as a part of the festival residency.

“I wrote Mariel in memory of a friend who died in a car accident in Patagonia, where the trees are very, very tall,” he explained. “The inspiration there was, of course, to write an elegy for her, but I imagined the moment when grief still hadn't arrived, the moment of being stunned by what happened, and I imagined the light of the sunshine filtering through the very tall trees. So for the marimba I imagined the refraction of the light, and the cello is like the spirit of that friend elevating. It’s almost like a painting, the idea of creating that melody and that effect of light in such a way that it’s almost like one single moment of light reverberating, rather than time progressing – suspended and vibrating, rather than going from the past to the future.”

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The Kuhmo Arts Centre
© Stefan Bremer

Another illusion Golijov finds in the masters is in the suggestion of motion. “So much Romantic music is based on the gallop of the horse or the walking motion of Schubert,” he said. “For me it's very important, when I write something, to think: is this a walk, is this a run, is this a horse ride? Is it a motorcycle, an airplane, a bird? For instance, in the cello concerto [Azul, recorded by Yo-Yo Ma with the New York City ensemble the Knights in 2017], the whole idea was that the piece never touches the ground; it’s always at different altitudes but it’s always in flight. That’s an illusion to me. Is there weight or is there weightlessness? Then the illusion of time sometimes is a continuity of time and sometimes of entering a whole new dimension of time – with some tricks, right?” he added. “With the right harmonic modulation at the right time, it’s like wow, I traveled three galaxies – so it’s an illusion. You feel it physically in your stomach, almost like when those elevators go down very fast in those very tall buildings, and then on floor 12 they suddenly slow down and your stomach goes up. I like to create that with harmonies sometimes. I don’t know how successful I am, but it’s one of the illusions I want to create.”

Golijov's detractors have accused him of being overly reliant on his inspirations, but for the composer studying and playing the works of past masters helps him to create what he calls a “constellation” of influences for a piece he's writing. “I like to do that when I think of something, to create a family of ancestors for each piece,” he said. “Mostly we were telling the same stories all the time, but we’re telling them with different idioms and different instruments. It’s nice to feel that a piece comes from a certain constellation of ancestors.”

As a further example of illusion in his orchestration, Golijov points to his 1996 work Last Round, dedicated to a fellow Argentinian and early inspiration – also included in the program played at Kuhmo. “This is super simple but it’s what I think is illusion,” he said. “When I wrote a piece in memory of Astor Piazzolla, I didn’t use the bandoneon but the whole point was to give the illusion that the bandoneon was there. That was more interesting for me than having the bandoneon. Or the last movement of a clarinet quintet that I wrote, called The Dreams and Prayers of Isaac the Blind, is based on a prayer where God is compared to a shepherd, and I had the string quartet playing the flute of the shepherd rather than having a flute.”

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Osvaldo Golijov
© Robson Fernandjes

Isaac the Blind was a pivotal work in Golijov's career. The half-hour piece was released on a stand-alone CD by the Kronos Quartet, marking the first time many listeners came across the composer's name – certainly outside his native Argentina. Golijov was born in 1960 to a family of East European Jewish immigrants, and the disparate cultural influences of his upbringing come through strongly in his work. He moved to the United States in 1992 to study with composer George Crumb at the University of Pennsylvania, where he earned his PhD. The 1997 recording by clarinetist David Krakauer also put his name on the contemporary music map and Golijov would arrange many more pieces for the Kronos Quartet, in what became a long and close working relationship. “They were incredible for me,” he said of his decade working with the quartet. “We did so many arrangements of music from everywhere. They were a great school for me.”

Golijov and Kronos' founder David Harrington remain close and the composer's song cycle Falling Out of Time – which the Silk Road Ensemble toured in 2019 – was dedicated to five couples who had lost children, including Harrington and his wife. “It’s based on a novel by the Israeli writer David Grossman and it’s an Orpheus kind of piece, except it’s a father going in search of his dead son and in this endless walk he never reaches that place: it’s an endless walk filled with questions,” Golijov said. Upcoming performances are scheduled in Boston, at Tanglewood and Carnegie Hall.

“I think that this piece will have a life,” he said. “I like that it sounds like a late piece. It sounds true to where I am in life. I’m going to be 60 next year. You know, you see pictures of people that are going to be 60 but they still want to look like they are 30, but this is not like that, this is the opposite. It’s like I don’t give a damn, I’m more free, I’m free to be who I am, and show the wrinkles, the heaviness.”

Click here to find out more about the Kuhmo Chamber Music Festival, which will be held for the 51st time in Kuhmo, Finland on 12-25 July 2020.

This article was sponsored by the Kuhmo Chamber Music Festival.