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The Prose and the Passion 

Wednesday, Oct 23 2002
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Two more hearings of Osvaldo Golijov‘s La Pasion Segun San Marcos have not dimmed the slash of its colors, its power to exhilarate, to stop the breath. Last weekend’s performances, as the peak of this year‘s Eclectic Orange Festival, did not quite draw the turn-away crowds I might have hoped for, nor was there a rerun of the wild 30-minute ovations that received the work at its premiere in stodgy Stuttgart and later in comparably staid Boston; five minutes past the final “amen” and the crowd was already halfway to the garage. But this in no way undermines the magnificence of the undertaking or its importance to the quality of musical life in these troubled times. We are, after all, dealing with Orange County and its steady but slow journey toward a state of cultural grace -- the pathway smoothed by the ministrations of the O.C. Philharmonic Society and its visionary leader, Dean Corey. Nobody applauded between sections on either night, at least, and only one cell phone was audible from my centrally located seat. (There was a serious glitch in the sound system on Friday night: a layer of static from the speakers audible over the strings in the orchestra. It began almost immediately in the work, and was still there at the end. By Saturday, however, it had been repaired.)

One of my colleagues has already hailed the work as “the first masterpiece of the 21st century,” which is accurate in spirit but not in math. (It dates from 2000, after all, as does that other work of comparable stature, Kaija Saariaho’s L‘Amour de Loin. Come to think of it, I have no difficulty in ascribing masterpiece stature to all four of the Passion settings commissioned by the International Bach Academy in Stuttgart and performed there that year. Quite a time for the Muses, those twilight weeks of the last century!)

I have spent a lot of time, with varying degrees of success, trying to explain -- to myself and to anyone else who might care -- this process of transculturation whereby such old categories as “classical” and “popular” no longer define the current state of music -- or, for that matter, of any of the arts. The excellence of Golijov’s big work is largely due to the ease with which it lies across boundaries.

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Its basic language is a gorgeous vernacular: the vibrant rhythms and colors of samba, tango and jazz. What is truly remarkable is the way that, in Golijov‘s hands, this trove of source material can be made to adapt to moments of grand design and, as well, other moments of lesser proportion. At any size and expanse -- the violent confrontation between Jesus and Caiaphas, the celebration of the Eucharist at the Last Supper, Peter’s weeping at his own betrayal of his master (a breath-stopping aria that has already taken on a separate existence as a recital item) -- he seems able to master his chosen vernacular, and to bend it to an impressive range of musical meaning, as Mozart could master the broad implications of diatonic harmony and create his own miracles within its confines, or Bach the richness of baroque counterpoint.

Already in its two-year life span the work has gotten around, with performances in Boston last season and last summer at the Tanglewood and Ravinia festivals. The performances heard in Costa Mesa marked the beginning of a tour that reunites the performers from the Stuttgart premiere (and, therefore, the live-performance recording on Hanssler Classic): the extraordinary 53-member chorus of the Schola Cantorum of Caracas under its energetic director Maria Guinand, an “Orquesta La Pasion” also assembled in Caracas but drawing upon international freelance talent -- a Japanese trumpeter, for example, and a Swedish percussionist -- and some splendid vocal soloists. The remarkable soprano Luciana Souza (whose throat, says Golijov, “carries Brazil‘s DNA”) had sung his music last year at a Green Umbrella concert and was again on hand. Samia Ibrahim sang Peter’s great lament “Lua descolorida” (which Dawn Upshaw had sung two summers ago at Ojai) and seemed to hold the very air of Segerstrom Hall captive to her misty magic. Among the unlisted singers, who came out of the chorus for smaller solos along the way, my ear was most gratifyingly wooed by the deep, dark contralto of Lisbeth Rojas, in her few lines of Jesus‘ agony in the Garden of Gethsemane. The tour ends at the Brooklyn Academy for three performances starting October 30. Robert Spano takes over Maria Guinand’s podium, and Dawn Upshaw comes in to sing the “Lua descolorida.” Okay, but it can‘t get any better than it was last weekend.

You have to wonder about the fate of this kind of special work -- assuming, as I can easily assume, that its fame and popularity will grow. Professional or even semiprofessional choruses can be more or less easily led toward mastery of Messiah and the classical standards; it doesn’t follow, however, that they can operate as easily within a choral style that draws upon the nasality, the honks and the language quirks of the Latino street singing that punctuates Golijov‘s music. Esa-Pekka Salonen can draw convincing performances of Revueltas out of Philharmonic players, but there are wonderful outbursts of downright musical slang in Golijov’s expressive style that probably require both learning and unlearning from conservatory-trained symphonic musicians. I asked Golijov, at his pre-concert talk, about his hopes and fears for the future of the piece; he seemed diplomatically hopeful that future musicians will find it worth their while to master his unique language. Meanwhile, he is at work on a chamber opera -- “something about the Middle East” -- scheduled for the L.A. Philharmonic in February 2004.

Inevitably, the temptation is strong to draw comparisons between this great work of Golijov and another ambitious venture of similar intent, the John Adams--Peter Sellars El Niño that the Philharmonic has on its agenda for later this season. There are vast differences, of course, between the meticulously charted sentiment (or sentimentality, if you must) of Adams‘ music and the exuberant anarchy of the Golijov. Yet the convergences are no less striking in both works’ aiming to re-express the greatest biblical narrations in the terms and the language of a vital contemporary nation-ness. Note, however, that the dramatic impact of the Golijov Pasion needs no collaborator‘s name attached. The picture it created on the stage of Costa Mesa’s Segerstrom Hall -- such an ugly framework for such beauty! -- was the ravishing spectacle of performers going about their art with love and, yes, passion.

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