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Sidereus

About the Work

Quick Look Composer: Osvaldo Golijov
Program note originally written for the following performance:
National Symphony Orchestra: Christoph Eschenbach, conductor / Midori, violin, plays Britten Dec. 1 - 3, 2011
© Thomas May

Osvaldo Golijov, who was born in 1960 in Argentina to Eastern European immigrants, settled in the United States in 1986. Close collaborations with particular musicians tend to motivate the character of a given piece, such as Azul, his cello concerto for Yo-Yo Ma (later revised for Alisa Weilerstein) or the song cycle Ayre for soprano Dawn Upshaw.

But with Sidereus, which he subtitles "Overture for Small Orchestra," Golijov wanted to honor the extraordinary contributions to American musical life made by Henry Fogel, an acclaimed champion of classical music whose widely influential career has included service as President of the League of American Orchestras, President and CEO of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, and manager of the National Symphony Orchestra, among many other positions that have encouraged orchestral music throughout the United States.

Golijov's aim was to pay homage to Fogel by writing a work that could be readily performed by a variety of orchestras, large and small, across the country. The National Symphony Orchestra is part of this consortium and continues the sequence of performances that was launched in October 2010 by the Memphis Symphony Orchestra. "It certainly felt more abstract, writing a piece to be interpreted by 35 or more ensembles with different expectations, different audiences, different personalities," observed the composer in an interview with Sarah Baird Knight. "The challenge was trying to create something that would serve them all."

Golijov takes his title from Sidereus Nuncius, a treatise published in 1610 by the Tuscan astronomer, physicist, mathematician, and philosopher Galileo Galilei (himself the son of a celebrated late Renaissance composer and music theorist, Vincenzo Galilei). "It's more commonly translated as ‘Starry Messenger,'" notes Golijov, "but to me the word ‘sidereal' is more beautiful. [Galileo] wrote it after observing the moon for the first time with the telescope." The composer points out that Galileo's scientific observations made the moon "no longer the province of poets exclusively" and opened up the possibility of life existing beyond the Earth-an hypothesis with threatening implications that ensured conflict with the Vatican in addition to the controversy over the issue of heliocentrism.

Golijov's Sidereus is in the tradition of the self-standing concert overture and develops a compelling sense of drama and mystery from just a few themes colorfully arrayed across the relatively modest orchestral canvas of his highly practicable scoring. "Ominous, massive, suspended in time and space" is his prescription for the opening, in which we hear a spread of deep, dark chords. This theme recurs later, suggesting, as Golijov observes, "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." Quasi-minimalist textures meanwhile fluctuate as a pulsating background for a haunting theme that the composer identifies with the moon. (Its somber character is not unlike the opening passage of Mendelssohn's "Scottish" Symphony.) Golijov further elaborates on Sidereus as follows:

"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."