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Honoring Bach With New Passions

TIMES MUSIC CRITIC

In 1971, Leonard Bernstein, a Jew, wrote a Catholic mass of sorts. An audacious theatrical interpretation of the liturgy that was commissioned in memory of JFK to open the Kennedy Center in Washington, “Mass” is an impudent stylistic brew that combines rock, 12-tone music and Broadway. At its center is a hippie celebrant who confronts God and society; on its edges are provocative excursions into Buddhism and Judaism. The Kennedys were aghast; Nixon, who was president at the time, stayed home.

But to the amazement of those of us who were initially appalled by it, “Mass” has not only endured but proven to be a postmodern masterpiece of eclectic ecumenicalism. And now it stands as the obvious spiritual precursor of the most remarkable musical project themed around the millennium--"Passion 2000.”

To honor the coincidence of the year 2000 with the 250th anniversary of Bach’s death, the International Bach Academy--a center for Bach studies and performance in Stuttgart, Germany, headed by a former Bernstein pupil, Helmuth Rilling--has commissioned four new passions from composers representing four corners of the world. Bach wrote passions as musical reflections of the last days of Christ, intended for solemn performance on Good Friday, based on the testaments of the evangelists, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Only his “St. Matthew” and “St. John” passions have survived, but the former is a strong candidate for the most profound piece of Western music ever written. The “St. John” passion, though currently mired in controversy because it contains an anti-Semitic line of biblical text, is the most potently dramatic of Bach’s works.

The new passions, which had their premieres between Aug. 28 and Sept. 8, are Wolfgang Rihm’s “Deus Passus” (after Luke), Sophia Gubaidulina’s “Johannes Passion,” Osvaldo Golijov’s “Las Pasion Sugun San Marco” and Tan Dun’s “Water Passion after St. Matthew.” The composers--German, Russian, Argentine and Chinese--are all distant, in one way or another, from Bach’s culture, music and his steadfast Lutheranism. Rihm, a German modernist, had, until now, avoided sacred music. Gubaidulina’s music exudes the exotic mystical spirituality of the Russian Orthodox Church. Golijov is a Latin Jew of Russian and Romanian heritage who now lives in Boston and has a penchant for klezmer and popular culture. Tan, who grew up oblivious to the Judeo-Christian traditions in Maoist China, has transplanted himself to the experimental world of downtown New York.

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Each of the Four a Major Success

These new passions are all stirring, major works, each lasting around 90 minutes and each a major success. The Golijov, which surges with Latin rhythms and includes magnificent Cuban, Brazilian and Venezuelan performers, will likely become popular. The celebrated Russian conductor Valery Gergiev recently hailed the Gubaidulina passion as her greatest work. The Tan passion, more effectively than anything I have ever heard, reveals music’s underlying universality as it irresistibly combines seemingly unrelated musical worlds. The more reflective Rihm passion was enthusiastically called by the head of the regional government of Baden-Wurtemberg, of which Stuttgart is the capital, “a modern-day proclamation of the Christian message of salvation.”

Actually, that German politician, Edwin Teufel, seems to have completely overlooked the work’s unsettling irresolution. “Deus Passus” is a somber reflection of ongoing postwar German angst. Using poetry by Paul Celan added as commentary to the German biblical text, Rihm seems--in mournful music for five vocal soloists, orchestra and chorus--to equate Christ’s persecution with issues of 20th century slaughter--blood is a Celan leitmotif. Yet the musical style, though coolly abstract, is so confident and the performance led by Rilling from memory was so compelling that Teufel’s response was not surprising.

Like Rihm, Gubaidulina--whose “Johannes Passion” was magnificently performed by the orchestra, chorus and soloists from the Maryinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg, along with the St. Petersburg Chamber Choir, all conducted by Gergiev--did not seek an easy path to salvation. Her “John,” instead, is a passion to strike terror into a listener, and implied a terrible warning for Russia. Passages of the gospel in Russian are intercut with those from the Book of Revelations. A deep bass, Genady Bezzubenkov, sang the majority of the text (in none of the passions are singers consistently assigned individual roles) and brought to it the dark, powerful presence we tend to associate with the czars in Russian opera. The work has, in instruments and voices (and especially percussion), a shimmering, ringing, arresting sound that ultimately overwhelms, with climaxes that linger forever and a day. The apocalypse appears to be just around the corner.

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Golijov’s black Jesus is a revolutionary; the composer provocatively suggested parallels with Che Guevara in the program book. And although his passion, sung in Spanish, had the most deeply touching presentation of the crucifixion, “San Marco” gave the impression of a triumphant celebration of Christ’s promise for a better world. And Golijov’s made the dances of Cuba, Argentina, Brazil and Spain a metaphor for a spiritual message--they were simply not to be resisted.

Tan, in reading Matthew, said that he was struck by references to water and sand, and thus he made his passion a ritual flood. Beautiful large translucent bowls of water were placed on the stage in the shape of a cross. Percussionists dipped instruments in them and also made splashing sounds with their hands.

Avoiding culture clash, though, was Tan’s most arresting accomplishment. At one point, the soprano, Elizabeth Keusch, enacted Satan tempting Jesus with devilish squeals and laughs in the style of Peking Opera, while the baritone Stephen Bryant responded with the calm overtone singing developed by Tuvan throat singers.

A solo violin and cello were meant to represent the dryness of the desert. The American soloists were country violinist Mark O’Connor and new music star Maya Beiser, and both added a wondrous fluid warmth to the sound of all that water splashing behind them. After a cataclysmic percussive earthquake (with chorus members shaking thunder sheets) at the passion’s climax, Tan found affirmation in a rapturous Bernsteinian tune, glamorized by Keusch’s pealing, glorious high Cs and Ds.

Golijov’s Passion Given 20-Minute Ovation

The fact that Stuttgart was passion-happy for a couple of weeks this summer is to be expected; the city is not normally a festival town. But “Passion 2000" has already had larger repercussions. All four performances were televised live throughout Europe. The Rihm was repeated the day after its Stuttgart premiere at the Salzburg Festival (where I heard it) as a culmination of the festival’s extensive tribute to the composer. The Gubaidulina was added to the Berlin Festival, two days after its premiere, and the performance I heard there was a major triumph. Golijov’s passion, which received a 20-minute standing ovation in Stuttgart, will be repeated in Caracas in November and by the Boston Symphony in February. Tan’s passion will be featured at a special festival in London next week devoted to the composer, and Yo-Yo Ma will be the cello soloist.

There are tantalizing if vague prospects for the passions in Los Angeles. Golijov is supposed to be the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s composer-in-residence for three weeks this season, but the orchestra has yet to finalize the arrangements. (Rilling appears with the Philharmonic in the spring, but he will conduct Bach’s “St. Matthew” passion, not his own.) Placido Domingo said at a press conference with Gergiev last week that he definitely wants the Los Angeles Opera to sponsor a performance of the Gubaidulina, and hinted at the possibility of presenting all four passions.

But for the time being, the easiest way to hear what at least Golijov and Tan are up to will be at the movies. Golijov has written the music to Sally Potter’s upcoming film, “The Man Who Cried,” and Tan to Ang Lee’s “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.” Is it possible that the film world could be that much further ahead of the musical curve than our local performing arts institutions?

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