by Alex Ross
The New Yorker, March 15, 2001.
When Osvaldo Golijov’s "La Pasión Según San Marcos," a setting of the Passion of Jesus Christ according to St. Mark, was presented by the Boston Symphony two weeks ago, the crowd made a sound that will echo in the musical world for some time. It was a roar of satisfaction, rising up from all corners of Symphony Hall. At first, the ovation seemed to be directed mostly at the performers—a throng of Venezuelans, Brazilians, and Cubans, augmented by Boston Symphony musicians, and conducted by Robert Spano—but the noise turned to thunder when the composer walked onstage. This level of euphoria is sometimes encountered at the Met, when a favorite singer has an exceptional night. It is not found at concerts of new music.
Skeptics may ask whether there is anything newsworthy about an ovation in Symphony Hall, where the audience rises to its feet a little too routinely. As rumors swirl that James Levine is poised to take over the orchestra, Boston is enjoying the sensation of being once again at the center of things. But Beantown boosterism doesn’t suffice to explain the scale of Golijov’s triumph. When "Pasión" had its première, in Stuttgart last summer, audiences reacted with even greater abandon, applauding and shouting for twenty minutes. "War Madonna im Saal?" asked the Stuttgarter Nachrichten. "Oder wenigstens Michael Jackson?" No—in the house was a thirty-nine-year-old Argentinian of Eastern European Jewish descent, who, until "Pasión," was known as the composer of a piece for string quartet and klezmer clarinet.
Any work that causes hysteria in both Boston and Stuttgart is worth a close look. And this Latino Passion carries two messages: one is that Golijov is a huge talent, with limitless possibilities in front of him; and the second is that Latin America has a fabulously rich tradition, one that will become a dominant force in coming decades. "Pasión" drops like a bomb on the belief that classical music is an exclusively European art. It has a revolutionary air, as if musical history were starting over, with new, sensuous materials and in a new, affirmative tone.
The Mexican composer Silvestre Revueltas was the first to signal that Latin-American music would follow its own path. He died in 1940, at the age of forty, leaving behind a handful of masterpieces and a mess of possibilities. An alcoholic leftist, he revelled in the noise of the street, re-creating the sounds of mariachi bands, military marches, and Amerindian percussion. His best work was, fittingly, a film score, "Night of the Mayas," which ends with one of the sweatiest rave-ups in the literature. The power of Revueltas’s accomplishment can be measured against that of his more disciplined contemporary Carlos Chávez, who made compelling abstractions out of primitive and popular sounds. Chávez’s music is thought out, logical, composed; Revueltas’s sounds as if it were being improvised on the spot.
In the middle of the century, Latin-American composers tended to follow Chávez’s lead, weaving homegrown folk melodies and dance rhythms into classical genres. After the Second World War, with musical nationalism going out of style, many younger Latin Americans made dutiful appearances at the intellectual fashion shows of the European avant-garde. Others, however, immersed themselves in the overlapping worlds of Latin folk and pop, finding work as film composers or arrangers. The Cuban-American composer Tania León, for example, studied at N.Y.U. in the seventies and also served as musical director for "Godspell." Ricardo Lorenz, a Venezuelan now based in Chicago, writes for orchestra and also plays Latin jazz. The Mexican minimalist Javier Alvarez has written works for the Brodsky Quartet, the Mexico City subway system, and the horror-film director Guillermo del Toro.
Something in the Latin world—perhaps its respectful collision of cultures—prompts artists to overrun the borders between genres. In the case of the tango composer Astor Piazzolla, the distinction between classical and pop vanished completely; Piazzolla’s tangos are small expressionist dramas, laced with dissonance and circumscribed by irony. A different kind of genre meltdown was seen in Brazil in the sixties and seventies, as Caetano Veloso, Gilberto Gil, Hermeto Pascoal, and Egberto Gismonti leapfrogged impudently from folk to pop, or from classical to jazz and back again. On his most recent album, Veloso sings a twelve-tone row over a techno beat, calling for a "gay Chicago Negro German bossa nova." This is as coherent a vision of the music of the future as any that has recently been offered.
Osvaldo Golijov is himself a polyglot creation: he was born in Argentina, grew up in the culture of Yiddishkeit, and now lives in the Boston suburbs. He first made his name with a hyperkinetic klezmer composition entitled "The Dreams and Prayers of Isaac the Blind." The Latin-American element of his heritage came to the fore in the cantata "Oceana," a setting of texts by Pablo Neruda. The Bach conductor Helmuth Rilling, who had commissioned "Oceana" in 1995, subsequently asked Golijov for a St. Mark Passion, to be presented in Stuttgart alongside new Passions by Wolfgang Rihm, Tan Dun, and Sofia Gubaidulina. Golijov had to buy a copy of the New Testament in order to begin work.
"Pasión" poses a question: How might Bach have composed if he had been born in Latin America toward the end of the twentieth century? Most likely, he would have steered clear of the late-modernist abstractions of Rihm; every bar of Bach’s output is marked in some way by the airs and dances of his day. His first order of business might have been to learn the mambo. In any case, Golijov’s work begins with a hypnotic montage of Latin sounds: Brazilian shakers and musical bows, conjuring an ancient world; eerie moans from the accordion, representing the voice of God; then the entry of the chorus, braying in Africanized Spanish over batá drums. The listener is thrown into the middle of a Lenten street festival, with three processions of singers converging in an antiphonal clamor.
Twentieth-century composers dreamed of a new kind of theatre that would bridge the gap between opera and ritual. This was Stravinsky’s aim in constructing "Les Noces," and it is no accident that Stravinsky-like devices of hieratic repetition recur throughout "Pasión," alongside rippling minimalist canons in the manner of Steve Reich. But Golijov doesn’t feel the need to assert himself with "wrong-note" sophistication, as Stravinsky did; instead, he trusts in the power of his material and in the instincts of his collaborators. Among them are the Brazilian vocalist Luciana Souza; the Afro-Cuban singer and dancer Reynaldo González Fernández; the percussionist Mikael Ringquist; and, most important, the Schola Cantorum de Caracas, a Venezuelan choir whose repertory extends from the Middle Ages to the present day. In places, the printed score simply records improvisations for posterity.
"Pasión" is too specialized in its demands to become a repertory piece, at least in the short term. Its creative team plans to travel from place to place, like a Broadway troupe on tour. It might legitimately be asked whether Golijov is still writing classical music or whether, as one Harvard professor complained, he is merely transcribing sounds that can be heard in any marketplace in Mexico. Take your pick. Ultimately, I think, "Pasión" is more imagined than observed, more dream than reality. Toward the end, Souza sings a Bachian-Brazilian aria entitled "Agonía," and the piece moves for a long spell into the interior world of Jesus’s suffering. At the very end, Kaddish is sung for the man on the cross, and the music undergoes an even more mysterious metamorphosis: the language is now Aramaic, the cantillation is Jewish, and the centuries have slipped away like sand. _