It is probably safe to say that Boston Symphony audiences seldom get to hear music like Osvaldo Golijov’s La Pasión según San Marcos, which monopolizes the program for this weekend. This much-ballyhooed oratorio-passion, using a largely popular Latin American idiom, was premiered in Stuttgart in 2000 and given its US premiere by the BSO a year later; it makes a bold statement, championing the connectedness of all art and the popular wellsprings of religion, while also giving voice to Golijov’s own experience as insider and outsider to a specific place and culture, as a Jew growing up in Catholic Argentina.
The performances at Symphony Hall (we were there Thursday, January 9; it repeats Friday and Saturday at 8:00) under the baton of Robert Spano (beware: the 90-minute work is performed without intermission) are given by an eclectic ensemble that adds members of the BSO brass and string sections to an otherwise self-contained corps that has been performing this work since its premiere. It consists of a choir, the Schola Cantorum of Venezuela, directed by Maria Guinand; a bespoke instrumental ensemble called Orquesta la Pasión, comprising piano (co-leader Gonzalo Grau), guitar, accordion (interestingly, a “regular” though amplified piano-accordion rather than a bandoneón), a berimbau (Brazilian instrument sort of like a Chinese erhu but with only one string and sounding something like a jew’s-harp), and an eye-popping array of Latin American bongos, drums and other percussion instruments; one “classical” singer (soprano Jessica Rivera); two vocal soloists within the Latin American popular tradition, alto Biella da Costa and high baritone Reynaldo González-Fernández (plus numerous soloists drawn from the choir), as well as capoeira dancer Deraldo Ferreira, who with González-Fernández contribute solo dances to this Gesamtkunstwerk for the 21st century.
A brief word or a hundred of background is in order, though you may wish to get it from the horse’s mouth in this interview of Golijov by the BSO’s Brian Bell. Commissioned by Helmuth Rilling as one of four passions (one for each evangelist) to commemorate the sestercentennial of J.S. Bach’s death (the other composers commissioned were Wolfgang Rihm, Sofia Gubaidulina, and Tan Dun), Golijov’s remit was to reflect a Latin American approach to its subject. Golijov, born and raised in Argentina and familiar with its and the wider region’s idioms, was well suited to this task, but being Jewish he felt uncomfortable trying to address this central story to the Christian faith. His resolution was to focus, in true post-modern fashion, on the telling of the story as the story. The moods, timbres, sights, rhythms and body language of the people are what this work is about, together with the portrayal of the whole people as the betrayed and defiled Christ. This latter point is important to Golijov’s realization of the story musically, as he does not assign roles in the drama to any single performer or group—anyone can sing Jesus, or Mark, or Pilate or Judas. The texts, in Spanish except for a concluding Kaddish in Aramaic and occasional snippets in Latin, are drawn from several Spanish editions of the Gospel, plus a couple of secular texts, most notably for the aria “Lúa descolorida,” Peter’s meditation on his denial of Jesus, taken from a poem by the Galician Rosalía de Castro.
Since its premiere to wildly enthusiastic audiences (in Stuttgart the applause, it was reported, lasted 25 minutes) this work has been performed perhaps more often than any other large-scale contemporary piece, but always by substantially the same forces (Guinand conducted the premiere and most of the Latin American performances, and Spano most of the rest), though individual performers may vary—the BSO premiere called on soprano Elizabeth Keusch, though Rivera appears most frequently. Musically, it certainly has precedents in the marshaling of folk and popular elements on a framework of sophisticated musical design: Bernstein’s Mass, Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess, even Rossini’s Stabat Mater, if one remembers that opera was the pop music of its day. Even as its performers have developed a cottage industry in staging it, the work is becoming something of a magnet for not only musical, but sociological and even literary commentary—there’s a thesis you can find online discussing Golijov’s use of musical genres as a form of irony; we’re not sure we’d completely agree, although it did seem that much of the brassy salsa music in the Passion set texts of cruelty, such as the crowd’s denunciation of Jesus.
None of this commentary, analysis and traveling circus would exist, of course, if there were not something of substance—indeed, of awe-inspiring substance—beneath it. In his review of the BSO premiere, Richard Dyer called the work “the first indisputably great composition of the 21st century,” although to be fair Lloyd Schwartz demurred. Our own reaction was closer to Dyer’s; the variety of popular genres that Golijov deployed to his purposes serve a highly refined musical sensibility that combines them to powerful cumulative narrative effect. Behind the rhumbas, salsas, capoeiras and other styles, which others more familiar with these idioms will have to name, there are minimalist ostinato, post-modernist neo-tonal harmonies, complex counterpoint and clashing rhythms, plus that one ravishing operatic aria that Rivera put across with utter sincerity and unmiked luminosity (all the other singers, and the quieter instruments, were amplified). The concluding chorale Kaddish expertly avoided overt judaicisms, blending Latin soulfulness with just a hint of Hebraic inflection, all to breathtaking effect.
Our notes disclose many other moments in the music that captivated: a section featuring the guitar against murmuring violins was deftly and delicately scored; the “clapping music” (Steve Reich, anyone?) standing in for flamenco introducing Judas’s aria “I wish to forswear”; the thrilling, quiet energy of the chorus and drums within the “Eucharist” section; the hymn “We Give Thanks unto the Lord” building through an ostensible set of variations (the tune was credited by Golijov as the protest song “Todavia Cantamos” by Victor Heredia) to pulsating intensity; the delicate instrumentation with accordion in the “Agonia”; Da Costa’s sultry rendition of Judas; the marvelous antiphony of choral sections against “jungle music” in “Scorn and Denial.” We were enthralled with all the performers, though some of the choreography seemed a bit rudimentary, and the Spanish diction of the singing (it is their native language, after all) was not adequate to keep these foreign ears apprised of where in the text we were. Spano’s conducting was precise yet energetic to a fault—this piece is his baby, and he dines out on it. Some alert reader with a stopwatch can tell us how long the applause went for—not 25 minutes, but enough to show that most of the audience went home satisfied.
Alex Ross dropped an aside in his New Yorker review of the BSO premiere that the St. Mark Passion is not likely to become a repertory piece by virtue of the specialized forces needed to perform it. We think that underestimates the versatility of musicians; it would be best for the future of this work, we think, if it were taken up by other bands, other hands, to evangelize.