Hispanic Passion

Tucson is a station of the cross-country tour of 'La Pasión según San Marcos.'

Crucified by the academic serialists and entombed by audiences who reject it as a living art form, classical music must reward the faithful by rising again. And its day of resurrection seems to have come at last, thanks largely to Osvaldo Golijov's La Pasión según San Marcos.

This musical retelling of the events leading to Christ's crucifixion draws its text from Spanish translations of the Gospel According to Mark, but it draws its musical elements, and indeed its overall approach to the story, from Latin America. Upon its European premiere two years ago and its subsequent American premiere in Boston, Golijov's Passion was that rarest of things: an instant sensation among both audiences and critics.

A 75-member touring company of singers, dancers and musicians (some playing such Latin American instruments as the berimbau, tres and bata) is bringing the work to Centennial Hall on October 22, courtesy of UApresents.

Born in 1960 in Catholic Argentina to a Jewish Orthodox mother from Rumania and an atheistic father from Russia, Golijov grew up assimilating the best and worst of many faiths and cultures. Several of these influences were fused in his Saint Mark Passion. Not only is this a Christian work from a composer who had most recently been composing pieces on Jewish themes, but it incorporates Latin American and African musical elements into a large classical structure. Golijov's setting is as folkloristic as Ariel Ramirez' best-selling Misa Criolla, which accounts for its immediate popular appeal, yet it also deploys folklore with a compositional delivery system sophisticated enough to satisfy critics wary of crossover music.

Golijov's work was one of four Passions commissioned in 2000 by Helmuth Rilling's International Bach Academy of Stuttgart to mark the 250th anniversary of Bach's death. (Bach's own St. Matthew Passion is one of the pinnacles of classical music.) The other commissionees were the high-profile Wolfgang Rihm, Sofia Gubaidulina and Tan Dun. Golijov was comparatively little known, although he had recently been writing a series of much thornier works with a strongly Jewish bent, now collected on the St. Lawrence String Quartet's latest CD, Yidishbuk.

Golijov has spoken about portraying a dark Jesus in this work, as opposed to the pale, European Jesus we so often encounter in music and paintings. He might just as well have given us a Jewish Jesus, but opted not to go in that direction. "It does end with the Kaddish--that's Jewish," he pointed out by phone a couple of weeks ago. "But the request was to do a Passion that reflected the Christian experience in Latin America. The Jewish experience in Latin America is insignificant compared to the Christian experience in Latin America, so it didn't have any relevance to focus on that aspect. When you write a Passion, it shouldn't be personal, so to speak, or there should be just a few moments where your personal views are expressed, in this case the Kaddish. I tried to be like a vessel, or a catalyst of the forces that have run in Latin America for the last 500 years."

The entire Passion's styles and techniques are laid out in its first several numbers (given here in English translation). "Vision: Baptism on the Cross" is a quasi-Minimalist instrumental piece, syncopated brass fanfares throbbing over fast Brazilian percussion. In "First Announcement," the chorus sings the words of Jesus over percussion, sounding like an Africanized version of Steve Reich's Tehillim. "Second Announcement" continues in the same vein, with a soloist as Mark engaging the chorus in call-and-response narrative, as do the ensuing sections, propelling the narrative with increasingly intense percussion.

Three guitars and strings playing Minimalist figures accompany Mark's flamenco-style singing in "The Anointment in Bethany," which leads straight into a Brazilian-pop setting of an argument between Jesus and the Apostles in a style worthy of Sergio Mendes, but with unexpected key changes. The ensuing narrative of the Passover events, initially mysterious and subdued, turns into something like a Venezuelan joropo during Judas's betrayal. Judas's "I Wish to Forswear" is based directly on a flamenco song, with string accompaniment. "The Eucharist," for unaccompanied chorus, is a sweetly romanticized Gregorian chant, while "We Give Thanks" is one long crescendo for chorus and drums, variations on the Víctor Heredia song "Todavía Cantamos."

All the basic musical elements are now in place, as soloists describe events in the style of flamenco singers, and Southern Hemisphere drumming underscores nearly everything, except for such subdued moments as "In Gethsemane," where the chorus could be drawn from the few delicate passages of Orff's Carmina Burana. Significantly different is "Agony," an extended, expressive section for soloist, choir, guitars and accordion that brings to mind the more desolate works of Astor Piazzolla, though without a tango rhythm. Another departure is "Colorless Moon," a setting of a Galician poem in a haunting manner crossing Henryk Gorecki with the Sephardic Jews of Renaissance Spain.

Golijov freely acknowledged debts to a few composers. "I always felt very, very much under the spell of the Vespers of the Virgin Mary by Monteverdi," he said. "I think that's the most astonishing piece ever. Then the Missa Criolla was an influence in saying, here's a way of telling the story from my geographic point of view. Even Rembrandt, when he painted the Bible figures, he dressed them in the style of Holland of his time, and this is the same approach, in music. And of course I was influenced by Les Noces of Stravinsky in the ritualistic aspect; that's my favorite piece of the 20th century. That was a great, great influence on me."

Golijov sticks closely to the gospel texts, although some passages are translated more colloquially than others he strays to other sources only rarely. "The idea was that the Lutheran Passions [of Bach and his contemporaries] are works of commentary; you take a little text and make a meditation and commentary around it," he said. "My approach was very different: reduction to the bare text and action. I often tried to reduce the text down to the most explosive words. Our way of entering the story, instead of stopping everything and putting in an aria like Bach, is dancing. Latin America is a place where things are danced and acted; it's a violent place, very different from the Germany of Bach where people could sit at a table and meditate."

Stylistically, this is no mere musical hodgepodge. Golijov employed certain kinds of music for specific situations.

"For moments that are about love, like the Eucharist, I felt a language of total purity should be used, so that sounds like Gregorian chant," he said. "For situations of betrayal and oppression I used flamenco, because that's the music of Spain and the Spanish conquered Latin America the same way Rome conquered Palestine. For the telling of the news I used Cuban drumming and chanting, because that's how the news was carried in Cuba. And for times of grief, I chose these Brazilian ballads, which have this hallucinatory quality."

Golijov realizes that the diversity of musical styles he employs makes this Passion hard to export--classical singers and instrumentalists in Wisconsin, for example, probably aren't adept at the idioms of flamenco and samba. That's one reason the work is touring with some of the original performers. Ultimately, Golijov believes, musicians everywhere will become more versatile.

"My hope is that instrumentalists and singers and choirs in the world will realize that these types of expression are part of the nature of human music making. People will say, 'Hey, I have to sing that way, too.' But at the moment I wrote it, I wasn't thinking of this consideration. I just wanted to write a piece that was true."

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