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Music review: Osvaldo Golijov's 'St. Mark' Passion finally reaches Los Angeles

April 25, 2010 |  2:38 pm
Ten years ago, as a new millennium was dawning and hope was in the air, an audience of well-dressed, severe German Bach enthusiasts filed in -- a tad condescendingly, I thought -- to the International Bach Academy Stuttgart to hear the news from Latin America. Osvaldo Golijov, an Argentine composer who taught in the Boston area and who was at the time an underused composer-in-residence at the Los Angeles Philharmonic, had been asked to walk in Bach’s footsteps and write a passion, a musical setting of one of the four gospels. Golijov’s assignment was to adapt the text of the Gospel according to St. Mark.

My first impression, two hours later -- 95 minutes for the performance of “La Pasión Según San Marcos” and 25 minutes for the riotous standing ovation from an audience that was whooping and applauding until its hands turned red -- was that modern music history had just been made.

A true pan-American passion, this joyous but also powerfully theatrical and shockingly original carnival of South American singing and dancing and drumming turned Golijov into the most feted young composer in America. Over the past decade, “St. Mark” has had them dancing in the aisles, as well as shedding a contemplative tear, in Atlanta and Amsterdam and seemingly everywhere else.

Everywhere, that is, but L.A. The Philharmonic proved inexplicably slow to jump on the “St. Mark” bandwagon. But Saturday night the orchestra finally presented the passion at Walt Disney Concert Hall, as part of the orchestra’s "Americas and Americans" festival. Better late than never?  No, better late.

You don’t need me to tell you that Americans and the Americas are much changed in the past decade. In our country, we have had terrorists attack our cities, fought long and divisive wars, endured the abuses of Wall Street and watched religious intolerance become a growth industry. On the other hand, we have become a globally connected society and appear to be emerging as a post-racial one as well. We can also add to that good news column the discovery of a major source of new musical energy in Venezuela.

And in the 10 years since its premiere, Golijov’s “St. Mark” has gone from startling novelty to a guidebook for the new Americas. In a pre-concert talk, the composer, whose roots are Eastern European and Jewish, explained certain differences between La Plata, Argentina, where he grew up, and Jerusalem, where he went to study music. He described South America as a melting pot, where cultures come together. In Jerusalem, however, musics collide -- each Arab and Jewish community, each Christian, Jewish and Muslim sect lords over its tiny but exclusive piece of territory, be it culture or soil.

Golijov wrote “St. Mark” as an outsider, a Jew who didn’t at the time of his commission even own a copy of the New Testament. His concept of Christ was based on his surroundings, the black Christ of Latin America and then the divisive sectarianism of the Middle East. He wrote what he knew and he went to Caracas, the Venezuelan capital, to learn more.

There he collaborated with one of the world’s most versatile choruses, Schola Cantorum de Venezuela. Its conductor is Maria Guinand, whose technique can be described as a combination of Pierre Boulez-like precision and the authority of a dancing Gustavo Dudamel (she was one of his mentors).

One Latin thing led, for Golijov, to another, and along the way he picked up Brazilian percussion and a capoeira dancer to portray a vision of Jesus in the form of a Brazilian beach dance. An exquisite soprano aria expressing Peter’s tears, “Lúa Descolorida” (Colorless Moon), is more classical and became the score’s best-known excerpt. Golijov also created a part for the well-known jazz vocalist Luciana Souza.

The text is mostly Spanish, but the passion ends with the Jewish prayer for the dead, the Kaddish. A small orchestra includes sweet-and-sour strings, hot brass, prominent guitar, a feast of percussion and an electrified “hyper-accordion.”

The impressive performers Saturday were imported from Caracas and included many from the Stuttgart premiere, including the Schola Cantorum, which sings and moves and makes textured sounds like no other chorus. Reynaldo González Fernández was once more the Afro-Cuban singer and dancer and Deraldo Ferreira the capoeirista, and both were commanding. Jessica Rivera was the heart-stopping soprano and Souza made sitting still difficult.

Guinand conducted. She impressed me in Stuttgart as the finest unknown conductor anywhere. But she is even more impressive now and still too little known, outside of her performances of the passion (there is a new Deutsche Grammophon recording with essentially the same forces as the performance on Saturday).

But maybe that will change after her Los Angeles debut, in which a tighter, more focused and punchier “St. Mark” is more than ever the soundtrack of cultures colliding and cohering as they must in a world that moves forward.

-- Mark Swed

Photo: Maria Guinand conducts Osvaldo Golijov's "St. Mark" Passion at Walt Disney Concert Hall on Saturday night. Credit: Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times