Osvaldo Golijov was born in 1960 in La Plata, Argentina, to a family of eastern European Jewish origin. He grew up surrounded by classical chamber music, Jewish liturgical music, the sounds of eastern European klezmorim, and the new tango of Astor Piazzolla. He studied piano at the local conservatory, and composition privately with Gerardo Gandini (b. 1936), a pupil of Argentina’s most famous composer, Alberto Ginastera. After living in Israel for three years, where he studied at the Rubin Academy in Jerusalem, Golijov emigrated to the United States in 1986 and earned his Ph.D. at the University of Pennsylvania.
In 1990, as a fellow at the Tanglewood Music Center, Golijov received a Fromm Foundation Commission, for which he wrote his work Yiddishbuk. It was premiered in 1992 by the St. Lawrence String Quartet during Tanglewood’s Festival of Contemporary Music. Golijov regards that collaboration as a turning point in his musical life, and the St. Lawrence Quartet has remained among the most important exponents of his works. Also at Tanglewood he became acquainted with the Kronos Quartet. Their working relationship has become a central one to the composer, who has collaborated with the quartet on some thirty pieces. Like the St. Lawrence, the Kronos Quartet has also recorded many of Golijov’s compositions. Its CD of his work on a Jewish legend—The Dreams and Prayers of Isaac the Blind, with clarinetist David Krakauer (1994)—became a classical best-seller. Golijov’s association with the Kronos Quartet also led him to work with the Romanian Gypsy band Taraf de Haïdouks, which participated in the recording of his sound track for the film The Man Who Cried (2000); as well as with the Mexican rock band Café Tacuba; tabla virtuoso Zakir Hussain; and the celebrated Argentine rock musician and producer Gustavo Santaolalla.
In 1995 Helmuth Rilling invited Golijov to compose a work for the Oregon Bach Festival. The success of Oceana, a “Latin American cantata” on texts by Chilean poet Pablo Neruda, brought another commission from Rilling for Golijov’s setting of the Christian Passion, for which he drew upon his own experience as a Jew living in an officially Roman Catholic country. The work was intended for performance at a festival commemorating both the millennium and the 250th anniversary of Bach’s death. La Pasión según San Marcos (The Passion According to St. Mark) had its triumphant world premiere in Stuttgart in 2000 at the European Music Festival. After its equally successful North American premiere in 2001 at Boston’s Symphony Hall, with the Boston Symphony Orchestra conducted by Robert Spano, The New Yorker’s music critic, Alex Ross, declared, “Any work that causes hysteria in both Boston and Stuttgart is worth a close look…. Pasion drops like a bomb on the belief that classical music is an exclusively European art.”