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The Passion of Osvaldo Golijov

TIMES MUSIC CRITIC

Porsches are made here, on the edge of the Black Forest. The Stuttgart Opera, under the leadership of Pamela Rosenberg (who takes over the San Francisco Opera next season), is one of Europe’s most imaginative companies. The local state-run radio station sponsors exceptional festivals of new music. The International Bach Academy, run by Helmuth Rilling, is not only completing an ambitious recording project of the complete works of Bach but has a venturesome notion about what Bach means to the 21st century.

And yet, artistically advanced as Stuttgart may be, it was still a shock to witness, Tuesday night in the Liederhalle, a magnificent triumph of Latin American music. Osvaldo Golijov’s “La Pasion Segun San Marcos,” his version of the Gospel according to Mark, sums up a vibrant musical culture, captures an irresistible religious egalitarian spirit, and brings a wondrous new vitality to classical music.

The score, sung in Spanish, is infused with the spirit of Afro-Cuban music, bossa nova, the “new tango” style of Astor Piazzolla, rumba and flamenco. It is so infectious and heartbreaking, this musical tale of miracles, that it seemed almost another miracle that a large German audience could maintain stony silence for 90 minutes without tapping a foot or dabbing an eye.

It turned out that the crowd had simply absorbed so much musical energy that as soon as the concert ended it instantly leapt to its collective feet and let loose with cheers, deafening applause, foot stamping and ululating that didn’t stop for nearly 20 minutes. Golijov’s passion incorporates musical styles we all recognized, but they were put to entirely new uses. And as everyone clapped and shouted bravos, smiling at their neighbors, I think we all had the same thought: This is a marvelous new voice for expressing the joy and sorrow of a boisterous multicultural world, and it traverses ethnic walls as if they didn’t exist at all.

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Golijov, who was a composer-in-residence last year at the La Jolla SummerFest, is Jewish, an Argentine of Russian and Romanian ancestry, and now an American living in Boston. His most celebrated work is for string quartet and klezmer clarinet. He is currently the Kronos Quartet’s favorite arranger, equally adept at adapting pop music, Middle Eastern music and Latin music. Passion-writing was not his idea.

To celebrate the 250th anniversary of Bach’s death this year, Rilling’s Bach Academy commissioned four new passions, in the spirit of the ones Bach wrote on the Gospels of Matthew and John, and they are being premiered over a span of 11 days. On Aug. 29, Passion 2000, as the project is named, began with German composer Wolfgang Rihm’s studious, high modern “Deus Passus” (after Luke). Next was Sophia Gubaidulina’s apocalyptic, sonically incandescent, Russian “Johannes-Passion” (after John), which was gloriously performed by a chorus, orchestra and soloists from the Kirov Opera, led by Valery Gergiev. And tonight will be the premiere of Tan Dun’s ritualistic “Water Passion after St. Matthew,” which features a Western chamber choir, percussion music in the style of Beijing opera, and parts written for cellist Yo-Yo Ma and country fiddler Mark O’Connor.

For “Marco,” Golijov also had a sensational team of performers. As soloists there were the Brazilian soprano Luciana Souza and the multitalented Cuban singer, dancer, choreographer and percussionist Reynaldo Gonzalez Fernandez. The chorus, the Schola Cantorum of Caracas, was astonishing, whether chanting (Gregorian or Osvaldian), calling in antiphonal responses, or sending out many of its singers to the front of the stage for transfixingly hot solos. The orchestra had a dozen classical strings (half of them members of the Lotus and the St. Lawrence string quartets) and a dozen jazzier Latin brass and percussion players (including, of course, accordion and guitar). The exceptional conductor, Maria Guinand, also from Caracas, seemed at ease with every stylistic situation.

Golijov is as fluid in his techniques for explicating the Christian passion story as he is in his musical style. He begins with a vision of Christ on the cross, and then follows Mark’s often bluntly brutal account of Jesus’ last days with a seamless flow of Latin dances. When he needs some instrumental stitching, he finds Steve Reich’s style of pulsing swells effective. Sometimes he surprises with a seemingly upbeat, intoxicating swaying choral song to accompany, say, Jesus’ betrayal, but that only makes Judas all the more seductive. The Sermon on the Mount is a howling song sung by Fernandez, standing and dancing on risers high above the stage, accompanying himself with a rattle.

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Jesus’ agony ebbs as an achingly beautiful new kind of Bachianas Brasileira for soprano, chorus, strings and guitar. The chorus can hardly speak of Jesus’ death, vocally trapped in keening phonemes and swaying from side to side, until it eventually finds a voice and a rhythm, overcoming grief through transforming song. “Marco” ends boldly and movingly with a Kaddish, the Jewish prayer for the dead that was likely recited by Jesus’ disciples.

One more oddity: The biography in the program of Golijov and local newspaper profiles of him mention that he will have a residency with the Los Angeles Philharmonic this season. The Philharmonic, however, says that the residency may not begin until next season, and as yet it has made no announcement about what it will entail. So far they have no plans to mount “Marco,” which the Boston Symphony will perform early in 2001. But for a major Los Angeles arts institution to ignore so great and important a celebration of Latin culture--to say nothing of a genuine classical music event with a huge appeal to a new young audience--would be equivalent to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art deciding not to bother with that Diego Rivera after all.


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