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January 13, 1998

Modern Composers

Osvaldo Golijov. The Dreams and Prayers of Isaac the Blind. The Kronos Quartet, with David Krakauer, clarinet, bass clarinet, basset horn. (Nonesuch, CD # 79444-2) 1997.

Composer Osvaldo Golijov was born in 1960 in La Plata, Argentina, lived in Israel for three years in the early 1980s, moved to the United States in 1986, and now lives and works in Massachusetts. Golijov says that the five-part Dreams and Prayers of Isaac the Blind, written in 1994, is "a kind of epic, a history of Judaism" portraying "the forces of God and man" and questions about the relations of man to God and the role of man in the world. That's a pretty big agenda for a half-hour string quartet.

Golijov also tells a story of his grandfather, with whom he lived as a child, always carrying screws in his pockets and continually using them to "fix things." Golijov saw that habit as a metaphor for the notion that "God had assigned that task of repairing the world to the Jewish people." This string quartet (with klezmer-style clarinet) is his picture of that project. The title refers to the sixth-century Jewish mystical writer Isaac ben Abraham, known as Isaac the Blind, one of the leading interpreters of the Kabbalah.

Golijov's vision is interpreted in this recent Nonesuch album by the Kronos Quartet and clarinetist David Krakauer. Krakauer is highly regarded as a classical clarinetist, but is better known as one of the leading forces "at the innovative forefront of the vital new wave of klezmer," the traditional Jewish celebration music that is enjoying a surge of popularity worldwide. (Krakauer has appeared on the David Letterman show, the ultimate sign of popular-culture celebrity status.) Kronos Quartet is perhaps the closest thing to a superstar group among performers of modern-classical music. The group has been described by one critic as looking "like the lead singer of The Cranberries backed by the guys of 10,000 Maniacs," and their playing matches that appearance in intensity, inventiveness, and willingness to push the frontiers of the string quartet. One of the ways they do that is by working with guest artists, and the combination of Kronos with Krakauer's clarinet is a good example of the synergy they can create through those pairings.

Dreams and Prayers is in three main sections plus short opening and closing statements. Golijov says the quartet is "an accordion in the prelude, a klezmer band in the second movement [and] in the third movement, it's a shepherd's magic flute." After a slow, dolorous prelude that suggests the slow breathing of a person in prayer, the first movement immediately shifts to an agitated tempo that could be the rapid heartbeat of one frantically in pursuit of, or being pursued by, something that remains out of sight. Golijov sees that unseen something as the knowledge of God -- "a revelation that is always out of reach" though it is perhaps within sight. Here is the relevance of Isaac the Blind -- one who devoted himself to pursuing that revelation through study of the Kabbalah. The second movement begins with a sinuous line from clarinet, then intertwines lines from strings in a frantic dance. Section three is a restrained and lyrical version of the central theme of the piece -- the quest for unattainable knowledge of the unknowable.

You can hear portions of The Dreams and Prayers of Isaac the Blind by Osvaldo Golijov on WHIL-FM (91.3) Thursday, January 22 at 7:30 PM as part of their weekly series of music from after 1950.

-- J. Green

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