It has been one of the more unusual stories in the realm of contemporary classical music. Some 35 small to mid-size orchestras joined forces to commission a work by Brookline resident Osvaldo Golijov, a Grammy Award-winning former MacArthur Fellow who is one of the most admired composers of the past decade.
But questions about the creative process behind his 2010 composition “Sidereus’’ - which is on the Longwood Symphony Orchestra’s Saturday program - have given rise in recent weeks to what is either a scandal or a tempest in a teapot, depending on your view.
“Sidereus,’’ a nine-minute-long overture, was intended to honor Henry Fogel, former president of the League of American Orchestras and a giant in the orchestra world. The piece was premiered by the Memphis Symphony Orchestra in October 2010 and has been making the rounds of the commissioning groups ever since. (The New England Conservatory Philharmonia was the second group to perform it, later in October.)
That might have been the end of the story, had composer Tom Manoff and trumpeter Brian McWhorter not been in the audience for a performance by the Eugene Symphony Orchestra this past February. Manoff, also an NPR music critic, and McWhorter heard “Sidereus’’ and were surprised to find that large parts of it closely resembled the composition “Barbeich,’’ by Michael Ward-Bergeman, an accordionist, composer, and friend of Golijov’s. Manoff and McWhorter had been working together on a recording of “Barbeich,’’ whose title is an amalgamation of the last names of accordionist Raúl Barboza and composer Steve Reich.
In an interview with his publisher that has been used as a program note for “Sidereus,’’ Golijov mentioned using a melody by Ward-Bergeman, but Manoff wrote in a personal blog posting that he detected far deeper similarities between the two works’ “melodies, harmonies, counterpoint, and notable musical structures.’’ Manoff has since taken down the original posting and is writing a new piece that “recounts the events in a broader context,’’ he said in an e-mail.
The relation between the two pieces quickly became a topic of dispute among bloggers and media voices. Was a major composer guilty of plagiarism? (Manoff’s first post was titled “Osvaldo Golijov’s ‘Sidereus’: An Attractive Piece, but Did He Write It?’’) Had he been up against a deadline and, in desperation, used the work of a friend to get out of a jam?
As it turned out, the truth was more complex and less sensational. A New York Times story last week revealed that the music common to both pieces was actually composed jointly by the two men when they worked together on a score for the Francis Ford Coppola 2009 film “Tetro.’’ (Golijov is credited as the score’s composer; Ward-Bergeman as associate producer.) Muddying the issue further, Golijov had already used this material in a 2009 piece called “Radio’’ for string quartet, accordion, and electronics, written for the New York radio station WNYC.
Golijov expanded on the process during a recent phone interview from Buenos Aires, where he was overseeing a performance of his “La Pasión Según San Marcos.’’ Of the collaborative process that produced the musical material, he said, “Imagine if Shakespeare and Bernstein had come together and said, oh, we have all these ideas for a story of love gone wrong. And one guy came away with ‘Romeo and Juliet’ and the other guy wrote ‘West Side Story.’ It’s the same exact plot.
“In this case,’’ he continued, “we had discarded music from ‘Tetro’ that we both loved. And we decided to develop the material as we saw fit in our own ways. It’s collaborating and creating music, both separate and together.’’
Ward-Bergeman has from the beginning maintained that he saw nothing amiss in the relation between the two pieces. “The music has been dissected and theories about the process of its creation have been wielded as a weapon,’’ he said in an e-mail to the Globe.
“What this entire affair all boils down to is two very close friends playing in a cultural toy box. Osvaldo and I play with our toys and discuss, joke around, explore. . . . This is the environment that ‘Barbeich’ and ‘Sidereus’ were created in.’’
The fact that the material had been jointly composed took the sting out of the plagiarism charge. Golijov saw himself as using existing music to create something new - which composers have done throughout the history of music. He cited Monteverdi, Schubert, and Mahler, among others, as models.
“I’m following in a long line of composers that I love,’’ Golijov said. “Imagine if Mahler had left some of the songs from ‘Des Knaben Wunderhorn’ for just voice and piano and had not become these huge musical movements of his symphonies - how much poorer the world would be. If you have material that can be explored further - be that a song for voice and piano becoming an orchestral movement or be that an accordion and string quartet piece becoming a full-blown overture - I don’t understand why not.
“I don’t understand why people make such a fuss about this,’’ he said.
Questions have also been raised about a more recent Golijov work. Shortly after the “Sidereus’’ dispute surfaced, Brazilian journalist Lúcia Guimarães contacted Golijov because she recognized that a movement from his recent string quartet “Kohelet’’ made use of a well-known Brazilian song, without attribution. Guimarães told the Register-Guard, a Eugene, Ore., newspaper, that Golijov changed the music after she brought the borrowing to his attention. Golijov, in the interview, emphasized that “Kohelet’’ is a work in progress, and that he had wanted the Brazilian melody to appear in a kind of transfigured, dream-like way. Because the music was, instead, easily recognizable, he decided to change the music. (“Kohelet“ will be performed by the St. Lawrence String Quartet in Rockport on April 1.)
One might wonder whether the many orchestras that participated in the commission for “Sidereus’’ saw anything amiss with Golijov’s creative process.
“We really don’t,’’ said Lisa Barr, the Longwood Symphony’s executive director, when asked whether the orchestra felt differently about the decision to participate in the commission in light of the controversy.
“We saw our involvement in this commission as a way to collaborate with these other orchestras and honor Henry [Fogel]. And then, specifically, to bring the music of Golijov as a local composer to the Boston audience.’’
Frank Byrne, executive director of the Kansas City Symphony, which played “Sidereus’’ a year ago, echoed Barr’s sentiment about wanting to recognize Fogel. “In terms of which choices the composer made and why he made them, I’m not in a position to second-guess Mr. Golijov,’’ Byrne said. “I would only say that that’s for him to reconcile in terms of how he arrived at this piece.’’
Ryan Fleur, president and CEO of the Memphis Symphony Orchestra, led the commissioning consortium. He said that in the week leading up to the Memphis premiere, “I watched revision after revision of the piece, seeing and listening to how this piece evolved into what it is. This is Osvaldo’s work.’’
Fleur stressed the low buy-in amounts of the commission - most orchestras contributed between $1,500 and $3,000 each. “There’s no one entity that really is deeply invested and, I don’t think, is going to be offended because this is the nature of this commission - everything is spread so thin over a large number of performances.’’
When asked whether he meant that because of each group’s small financial outlay, they were not deeply invested in the quality of the resulting piece, Fleur replied, “I suppose I am. If any one entity were to have put up $30,000, would that have changed their opinion? Maybe. But nobody did. In Memphis’s case, we feel deeply vested and have no issues with the piece or the process.’’
For his part, Golijov simply wants listeners to experience the music and forget about the story that has enveloped it. Asked whether he thought that “Sidereus’’ could get a fair hearing, he replied, “It depends on the frame of mind of the listener. Everybody’s free. You can go to a piece of music with a sense of wonder, of wanting to be transported to a beautiful place. Or you can go with malice. And once again, if the people that collaborated, from which these pieces came, are happy with their friendship and their collaboration, and if there is no credit issue - then I think it’s more like high school gossip than scholarship and logic.’’
David Weininger can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.