Osvaldo Golijov
Osvaldo Golijov | Credit: Stephanie Berger

Every two years, the Rubin Institute for Music Criticism convenes in San Francisco, teaching music students across the U.S. about music journalism. SF Classical Voice has partnered with the Rubin Institute to give the program’s top writers more experience in the field with an internship. This year’s Rubin winners, Emery Kerekes and Lev Mamuya, will be with SFCV for six months, reporting from New York and Boston, respectively.

In an October 2022 interview with SF Classical Voice, composer Osvaldo Golijov said that writing Falling Out of Time, a song cycle about grief, was a “breakthrough” after a decade-long period of reduced activity.

Indeed, his latest project shows him working with greater clarity than ever before. The 13-song cycle takes inspiration from a book by David Grossman that dissects the enormity of the grief a parent feels after losing a child. It paints a totalizing, layered portrait, one that is well suited to its goal of vivifying the suffering of parents who have lost children in the Israel-Palestine conflict, no matter their political, religious, or ideological affiliations. 

Though in the past Golijov has faced famously harsh accusations of repetitiousness, Falling gives his musical idiom a greater clarity than ever before without altering its perpetually distinctive character. The April 30 performance of the work, presented by the Boston Symphony Orchestra in association with Celebrity Series of Boston allowed audiences to reckon fully with the new elements of the composer’s sounds while providing a faithful reminder of what has always been essential about his music.

Briella da Costa | Credit: Marco Giannavola

The symbolic focus of Golijov’s works is often an examination of inexorable forces, ranging from the Biblical to the cosmic. In Falling, he reckons with how the force of a parent’s grief can take a sufferer “out of time.” He musicalizes Grossman’s understanding of grief processes to create an emotional narrative that is progressive without being linear. The songs contain plaintive climaxes, full of timbral diversity, as well as resigned, wounded, and still stretches that give those high points the requisite room to breathe.

Linoleum prints, early paintings, and images in other visual registers flashing across a projection screen (itself a textured surface, like a bleached Helen Frankenthaler or Frank Bowling painting) served to reinforce the idea that there are elements of this profound sorrow that are universal and features that express themselves differently through place and space.

Golijov’s vocal writing, expressed in Yoni Rechter’s pleading, cantorial interjections and Biella da Costa’s searing wails, contributed to this mission. Other surprising colors, like the combination of flugelhorn and a piercingly high, bell-like synth, added to this layered understanding.

Deft use of weary, programmed drums, heavy and pained reverb, and other live-executed electronic sounds and effects allowed for a further expansion of this palette in ways that may have eluded the Golijov of a decade ago. Violinists Johnny Gandelsman and Mazz Swift sculpted their sounds around recorded drone textures, blending with and standing atop them as appropriate. Only occasionally did the electronics take the piece into an overly theatrical register, and one feels Golijov could have made their inclusion even more substantial.

In the cycle’s more lyrical moments, Golijov uses several of his familiar tools to great effect. Bassist Shawn Conley and cellist Karen Ouzounian converged and differentiated themselves in writing that recalled the brilliantly voiced, low melodic moments of the composer’s Last Round and Tenebrae. The other players were sensitive to adjust to this unique timbre, allowing it to shine through in several moments (Ouzounian also combined with violist Mario Gotoh to great effect). In Falling’s rare moments of groove and propulsion, one could also recall some of the rhythmic features and sense of swing from Golijov’s past works.

A performance of Falling Out of Time at Dartmouth in 2022

It was in these moments of rhythmic drive, though, that the listening experience was sometimes disrupted. Shane Shanahan’s live drums, while intelligently phrased, were sometimes overmixed, overwhelming the string ensemble as they echoed around Symphony Hall. The vocalists’ plosive and sibilant syllables posed a similar threat in quicker passages. Nonetheless, the ensemble had a practiced and easy sense of groove whenever called for.

Many artists across disciplines develop lexicons, motifs, and symbols that they examine longitudinally, sometimes over the course of a career. While some allow this to mire their work into stasis, the best allow these themes to deepen, expand, and grow. With Falling Out of Time, Golijov places himself firmly in the latter category.

Correction: As originally published, this article misstated the performing organization as Silkroad. We regret the error.