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Composed: 2000
Length: c. 90 minutes
Orchestration: 2 trumpets (1st = piccolo), 2 trombones, percussion (bombos, iyá, 2 congas, shekere, quitiplás, caja, quinto, repinique, snare drum, sea shells, maracas, itótele, bongo, bells, two surdos, caxixi, okónkolo, timbales, güiro, spring drum, guataca, agogó; percussion played by singers or instrumentalists: brimbau, cajón, udú, clave, wind chimes, whistle, shaker, gua gua, cuica, snare drum, bass drum, bell, bombo, repinique, surdo, ganza), berimbeau, guitar/tres, accordion, piano, strings (without violas, and with solo double bass), chorus, and vocal soloists
Premiered: September 5, 2000 in the Beethovenhalle in Stuttgart, Germany, with María Guinand leading Orquesta La Pasión and the Schola Cantorum de Caracas

Golijov dedicates La Pasión, which was commissioned by the Internationale Bachakademie (Helmuth Rilling, artistic director), “to the miracle of faith in Latin America, alive through María Guinand and the Schola Cantorum de Caracas.”

It’s hard to believe that La Pasión según San Marcos is nearing its first decade. The phenomenal excitement generated at the world premiere in 2000 proves to have been based on more than a passing millennial fad; it shows no signs of diminishing. One secret behind the enduring appeal of this music lies in its vigorous reaffirmation of a fundamental paradox of art: The specific and local provide the most fertile source from which the “timeless” and universal may blossom.

But the local is precisely what tends to be taken for granted. Osvaldo Golijov’s genius here is to draw on specific idioms from Latin American culture and from his own experience in a way that sheds fresh light on the Passion’s transfiguring story of suffering and redemption. An aphorism by fellow Argentinian Jorge Luis Borges seems to have special applicability to Golijov (pronounced GO-lee-hof): “I’m grateful to God not because he made me a good writer but because he made me a good reader.”

Substitute “composer” for “writer” and “listener” for “reader” – and you have an indication of Golijov’s uniquely creative powers of observation. The son of Old World immigrants to Argentina, Golijov grounds the music of La Pasión in deeply felt responses to the diverse cultural strands of his upbringing. His father’s family was of Russian Jewish heritage, while that of his mother – who devoutly practiced Orthodox Judaism, in contrast to her husband’s staunch atheism – hailed from Romania; both sides emigrated in the 1920s.

Golijov grew up imbibing an intoxicating mix of sounds: classical chamber music in the home (his mother was a pianist), Yiddish klezmer, synagogue chant – and, of course, the vibrant spectrum of Latin America’s vernacular musical styles, from anonymous folk ballads to the innovations of tango master Astor Piazzolla (whose ensemble toured the composer’s hometown of La Plata). Golijov left his native Argentina in 1983 and, after three years of study in Jerusalem, settled in the United States. Yet the cultural intersections of the composer’s youth continue to reverberate in his musical imagination.

One of the great ironies of La Pasión is that Golijov’s stance as an outsider – a Jewish composer turning to a quintessentially Christian ritual, a Latin American émigré reclaiming a Eurocentric tradition – results not in cool detachment, but rather in music of such immediate urgency for contemporary audiences. Yet, as the composer himself has pointed out, he felt a “burning curiosity” to understand the power behind this story and its effect on so many people he observed “as a Jewish kid growing up in an officially Catholic country.”

Golijov is especially attuned to the revolutionary significance of Jesus’ suffering: Throughout La Pasión, Jesus literally sings with the “voice of the people.” Growing up in the Argentina of the 1970s left the composer with more than a trove of musical memories. He recalls the examples he witnessed of priests and nuns who – unlike those pampered by power – endangered themselves to fight social injustice during the Pinochet-like dictatorship of the Argentine junta’s Dirty War. At the same time, La Pasión never condescends to delivering a simplistic, agitprop sermon. Far from it: This is music that radiates a sense of the numinous and sacred to be found in the everyday world around us.

When he accepted the request from conductor and Bach expert Helmuth Rilling and the International Bach Academy of Stuttgart to write the piece – his was one of four Passions by contemporary composers commissioned to commemorate the 250th anniversary of Bach’s death in 2000 – Golijov came to the project wanting to depict “a Jesus that is as true as Bach’s but has so far remained for the most part unheard.” Specifically, Golijov decided to base his Passion on “a dark Jesus, and not a pale European Jesus.” The perspective he chose to emphasize focuses on “Jesus’ last days on earth seen through the Latin American experience and what it implies.”

Golijov naturally gravitated toward St. Mark’s account of the Passion. Of the four canonical gospels, Mark’s is the most journalistically straightforward – and, by scholarly consensus, the earliest. His lean, crisp, swiftly paced narrative style is mirrored in La Pasión’s edgy momentum. Golijov points out that, in contrast to the Protestant tradition of the Passion (represented, above all, by Bach) – with its alternation between narrative and meditative commentary – his Passion is intended to represent “enactment and ritual.” Golijov conflates a variety of Spanish translations of Mark’s Greek. His libretto also includes brief excerpts in Latin from the Old Testament, a Galician poem by Rosalía de Castro, and the concluding “Kaddish” (No. 34), which mixes Spanish, Latin, and Aramaic.

The time zone is both the here-and-now and the eternal. This interpenetration of present and past, enactment and myth, is an aspect of the hybrid Catholicism Golijov depicts, with its accretions from imported African ritual. In the “Second Announcement,” for example (No. 4), he asks the first solo vocalist to intone the words of Mark “like a Santería priest.” Golijov reimagines villagers from contemporary Latin America acting out this ancient story as if it were unfolding anew, featuring themselves as the participants. Even so, he punctuates the score with a series of arias by Jesus, Judas, and Peter that provide moments of heartrending reflection – all the more effective as counterweights to the overall narrative thrust.

For his essential vocabulary, Golijov draws on a range of gritty, streetwise idioms that would be at home in a Carnival celebration or a sultry club. A note of caution, however, is in order: There is no monolithic, homogeneous “Latin American” style in operation here, however loosely – and lazily – that term tends to be bandied about as a catchall description. Indeed, Golijov takes great care to deploy distinctly regional styles. He arranges these strategically to underline contrasting expressive purposes.

These styles derive from particular geographical centers that, as the composer explains, have themselves been hotbeds of cultural cross-pollination in Latin America: Cuba and Bahia, Brazil, where the mix of influences from indigenous peoples, African slaves, and European colonizers is especially pronounced. Afro-Caribbean drumming and chanting propel the story – the actual “news” – while Brazilian sounds (e.g., shakers and berimbeau, a single-string wooden bow) are used to conjure more mystical or “surreal” aspects outside the linear narrative trajectory. Spanish flamenco suggests the influence of the colonizing power, akin to ancient Rome in the Holy Land, and is thus suitable for Jesus’ betrayal and sentencing by the authorities – but also for the fatalistic aura of his impending death.

But Golijov avoids being predictably schematic – let alone faux-naïf in his use of accessible styles. He weaves La Pasión’s score out of a rich diversity, embracing Cuban son from the street and the dancehall (rumba, mambo, salsa, montanon); Brazilian samba, jazz, and balladry; and even Gregorian chant and Middle Eastern-inflected cantillation. Moreover, he layers in elements drawn from Minimalism and other contemporary-classical sources – all filtered through Golijov’s characteristically open-eared sensibility.

An especially telling example is the presence of the accordion, which is so readily associated with Argentine tango. In “Dance of the Ensnared Fisherman” (No. 2), for example, Golijov manipulates the instrument – using a “hyperaccordion” technique and sound design devised by Michael Ward-Bergeman – in tandem with shivering strings to evoke otherworldly sighs (which, the composer indicates, represent “the Voice of God”).

Yet another critical layer is evident in the input of Golijov’s performers. His creative process generally involves close, collaborative feedback with particular musicians – the Kronos Quartet and soprano Dawn Upshaw are prominent examples – but La Pasión is, to an unusual degree, a performer-specific work. It relies for its realization on a flexible, improvisatory approach from singers and instrumentalists intimately familiar with its styles. “Dance of the White Sheet” (No. 21) is, in fact, a blank page in the written score, save for the instruction to continue with the percussion groove established in the preceding number. Golijov tailored La Pasión from the start to the particular talents of his solo vocalists, the Schola Cantorum de Venezuela, and Orquesta La Pasión – who together released their second recording of the work just last month (the first studio version, introducing some slight revisions to the original score).

Much as Golijov departs from the Eurocentric image of Jesus, he avoids conventional expectations of orchestral ensemble and classical singing. Traditionally, strings serve as the orchestra’s backbone, with percussion literally placed on the margins as a source of “color” or spare emphasis. La Pasión reverses the situation, giving the extraordinary array of percussion a dominant role so that these musicians regulate the story, laying out the fatal patterns that drive it forward. Like the percussion, the chorus – divided into three parts at the beginning, but also singing at times as double or unified chorus – serves as a major pillar of La Pasión.

Golijov derives wonderful textures from his reduced strings (no violas), but uses them with economy. The wiry scrapings in the “Aria with Crickets” (No. 9) – one of several wordless, purely instrumental interludes representing a character – suggest a kind of homage to George Crumb (an important early mentor to Golijov). “Colorless Moon” (No. 26) – the aria of Peter’s grief over his denial of Jesus – serves as one of La Pasión’s emotional focal points, its hauntingly expressive vocal line backed by a mere string quartet (two violins, two cellos) that play chords of Arvo Pärt-like austerity.

Meanwhile, Golijov calls for a democratic variety of singing styles from the soloists: Brazilian jazz alto, light soprano à la early music, “hot Cuban alto,” Afro-Cuban tenor, “Beny Moré-style” high tenor, various “hot Cuban tenors,” “Middle Eastern-style” baritone, and so on. Unlike traditional Passion settings, Golijov doesn’t restrict particular roles (the Evangelist, Jesus, Peter, Judas) to one representative performer. Jesus is in fact incarnated variously by the chorus and male and female soloists. Intriguingly, the same singer/dancer simultaneously portrays Jesus and Peter in “Face to Face” (No. 17), while “Agony” (No. 19) – the moving emotional center of the entire work – presents a succession of three voicings of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane. Instead of a superhuman icon, Golijov represents multiple facets, showing Jesus’ anger over the reaction to the Woman of Bethany, his fear of death, sorrow, and acceptance.

While he reorients our expectations of “classical” sonority, Golijov draws on classical sensibility to fashion his large-scale architecture. Three solo capoeira dances (a kind of stylized martial-arts performance) situated at significant turning points are just one example of a unifying device (based on the number three, this is also one of several recurrent symbolic elements the composer uses). The reflective arias likewise introduce larger emotional rhythms that cut across the incessant, fateful pull of the narrative, while timbral choices suggest cross-references throughout.

Golijov embeds La Pasión’s ending in the flashback opening, in the “Vision: Baptism on the Cross,” as Steve Reichian trumpet patterns intone the phrase that will become Jesus’ lament on the Cross: “Elohi, Elohi!” To conclude his Passion, Golijov extends the language of Jesus’ final words – Aramaic – into a prayer of Kaddish for the dead. Solo and chorus come to rest on a gently sustained chord: the work of memory and sorrow held together by those who go on.

Thomas May writes and lectures about music and theater and is a frequent contributor to Los Angeles Philharmonic programs.