Born in Argentina to Eastern European Jewish parents, composer Osvaldo Golijov certainly brings many cultural influences to the musical table, influences that shone through in the three works of his performed at Zankel Hall on Monday night.

The evening opened with K’vakarat, originally written for Kronos Quartet and cantor Mikhail Alexandrovich in 1994, and performed on Monday night by St Lawrence String Quartet and clarinettist Todd Palmer. Palmer’s performance was seamless, his clarinet doing an eerily convincing imitation of the human voice over a cello pedal tone with soft, ethereal backdrop from the violins and viola. Since composing the work in ’94, Golijov has incorporated K’vakarat as the third movement of a larger work (The Dreams and Prayers of Isaac the Blind), which, in a mid-concert discussion, the composer likened to Mahler’s compiling of songs for Das Lied von der Erde.

Golijov dwelt at length in his discussion with moderator Jeremy Geffen on the evening’s centerpiece, the multi-movement Ayre, which he described as a pilgrimage from Spain along the Mediterranean coast to Jerusalem (with two detours to Argentina). As Geffen noted, Ayre was originally written as a “companion” piece to Luciano Berio’s Folk Songs; when asked about the challenge of adapting a pre-existing work, Golijov explained that the task was not necessarily different from that of composing an original work. In both endeavors, the composer must ask “what are you saying to the world? What are you conveying that wasn’t there before?” Golijov did acknowledge that, unlike Berio’s “gentler” pieces, he himself was not afraid to “jump centuries” and “juxtapose different cultural aesthetics”.

In an almost confessional tone, Golijov expounded on his use of extra-musical materials during his compositional process: “I need drama, material that has a narrative... With my temperament, I struggle with abstraction... It’s hard for me to write entirely abstract music.” This propensity for narrative is perhaps not surprising given his past work with film directors such as Francis Ford Coppola and Peter Sellars.

Thus, the other of the three pieces on the program, the two-movement Qohelet for string quartet, though perhaps more abstract sounding than K’vakarat and Ayre, nonetheless has as its basis the poetic images of Ecclesiastes. The piece conveys, as Golijov writes in the program notes, “seemingly contradictory states” as its moments of beautiful calm are always disrupted by unexpected changes in the scale and rhythmic character. As movement one moves directly into movement two, the first violin solos expansive melodies over the pulsing rhythms of the rest of the quartet. At the piece’s expressive peak, the first violinist plays in octave double-stops, giving the impression that a fifth person has joined the ensemble. The movement ends in this heightened emotional state, “suspended in mid-air”.

Though comprised of a multiplicity of cultural voices, the pieces on the program shared a recognizable singular voice, the voice of a composer who views himself as “somebody who brings the music to the people”.