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Golijov's Sensational Passion

Osvaldo Golijov
San Francisco Classical Voice

By Jason Victor Serinus

Boom! Wham! As the percussion of Orquesta La Pasión, led by Mikael Ringquist and Gonzalo Grau, pounds away, Argentinean-born composer Osvaldo Golijov wastes no time proclaiming that his St. Mark Passion will take a giant step away from the language of J.S. Bach’s monumental achievement.

In 2000 the Bach Academy of Stuttgart, to mark the 250th anniversary of the composer’s death, asked Golijov, Wolfgang Rihm, Sofia Gubaidulina (San Francisco Symphony’s recent composer in residence), and Tan Dun to compose new settings of Passion segments from all four Christian Gospels. Golijov’s commission, La Pasión Según San Marcos, is as awe-inspiring as it is rousing. Written by a Jew who grew up surrounded by classical chamber music, Jewish liturgical and klezmer music, and nuevo tango, and who did not own a copy of the New Testament at the time he received the commission, Golijov’s Passion is part Latin America meets klezmer Afro-Cuban dance party, part performance work, and part oratorio.

It’s also as emotionally gripping as it is thrilling. When seen on the live Holland Festival DVD performance, conducted by Robert Spano, that supplements the far better sounding, two studio-recorded Deutsche Grammophon CDs conducted by the work’s dedicatee, Maria Guinand, it is also theatrically compelling. This is a work that cries out for the higher visual and sonic resolution of Blu-ray.

The distinct Latin flavor and brilliant colors of so much of the music — not to mention the delicious voices of “Latin-American alto” Biella Da Costa; Afro-Cuban vocalists Reynaldo González-Fernandez, Gioconda Cabrera, and Manolo Mairena; and the less luxuriously titled vocalist Alex Alvear — contrast with the heartfelt purity of soprano Jessica Rivera. A favorite soloist of Golijov and John Adams, who was profiled in SFCV earlier this year (here), she first enters about 23 minutes into the piece. In the aria of Judas, “¡Ah! quisiera yo renegar” (I wish to forswear), Rivera’s unadorned sadness instantly transforms the energy of the Passion.

The even more striking section that follows, titled “The Eucharist,” showcases the women of the Schola Cantorum de Venezuela. To ominous drumbeats, their singing segues into the full chorus’ “Demos Gracias al Señor” (We give thanks unto the Lord). As we hear the words (in translation) “Even while the earth trembles ... When death comes and captures me ... Tremble, tremble earth ... We give thanks to the Lord,” the chanting becomes primitive, at times imitating shaking sounds.

If Rivera has the soul of a soprano trained in the European classical tradition — the high-lying arch of her major aria, “Lúa descolorida” (Colorless moon – Aria of Peter’s Tears), is transfixing — Da Costa has the soul of a Latin vocal goddess. Contrast their voices with the sounds of the chorus toward the end of the work, when they accuse Jesus, smite him on the head, spit on him, and then “worship” him with screeches, hisses, and other disquieting effects, and you sense the scope of Golijov’s achievement.

As the crowd/chorus clothes Jesus in a purple robe, then crowns him with thorns, the orchestra goes wild. Complete with a discordant piano and jarring trombones, this orgiastic outburst leads to Jesus’ death, and finally to the Hebrew Kaddish. According to critic Alan Rich, whose liner notes were probably written shortly before his death (see SFCV’’s obituary) , the audience at the 2000 Stuttgart premiere awarded the work an ovation that lasted over half an hour. As you listen to the CDs, then see the choreography on the DVD, you will know why.