The L.A. Philharmonic's "Americas and Americans" festival, ongoing through May 4, brings a series of performances showcasing the mottled musical traditions that have bubbled forth in our continent-wide cooking pot of cultures, faiths, topographies and arts. Befitting the festival's theme, renowned composer Osvaldo Golijov's La Pasión según San Marcos receives its Los Angeles debut on April 24 and 25. Originally commissioned by the International Bach Academy, the piece premiered in Stuttgart in 2000, on the 250th anniversary of Bach's death.
A Jew raised in Argentina, Golijov was uncertain about taking on a project detailing the last days of Jesus Christ on Earth.
"The Pasión had to be a Passion reflecting the way in which the story is lived and has metamorphosed in Latin America," says Golijov over the phone from his home in Newton, Massachusetts. "I realized that, as a Jew growing up in a Catholic country and surrounded by Catholic friends, I would perhaps have some insight that being completely inside [the religion] one may lack. I thought of how Rembrandt, not being Jewish but living among the Jews, was able to give a perspective to the Jewish soul in a way that the Jewish painters never did. It was the same situation of outsider/insider."
The work contrasts the sacred and the secular in a series of pieces for solo singers and players plus choir and an orchestra of nontraditional shadings. Golijov's goal was to write a piece that was transcendent but not pedantic, so the text itself was a compilation of many translations of the Gospel that are not exactly scholarly.
"Actually, I collected translations of the Mark Gospel that are usually sold in public transportation in Latin America by handicapped people and like that," he explains. "I wanted the piece itself to be very seemingly simple — like the words of Jesus himself, they are understandable by everyone."
One requirement of the piece's commissioning was that it somehow reflect the spirit of Bach. Golijov notes that while there are no similarities between his own technique and Bach's, the baroque composer often conveyed the profundity of his music's thematic material via simple choral melodies.
"In my case, it's rhythms and grooves and instruments that are humble and are associated with day-to-day life in Brazil and Cuba, the two places in Latin America in which a new culture has emerged from the syncretism between the European, the native and the African people."
The piece's pumping and primal, yet movingly meditative interpolations reflect Golijov's trademark habit of turning old forms on their heads.
"I started from the bottom up, with the three Afro-Cuban sacred drums, and then developed the instrumentation with one idea, which was the idea of ceviche: You just put so much lemon juice on the fish, and let it cook in lemon juice. So that means to use any instruments that could cook, you know, that could make a power."
Golijov's Pasión is an untamable beast whose constituent parts its performers have learned to wrestle. The choral segments were first developed and performed with the renowned Schola Cantorum de Venezuela, whose director, Maria Guinand, will conduct the Pasión at Disney Hall. Golijov credits the choir and players' family-like enthusiasm with giving the piece its feral yet "homemade" warmth.
"Once or twice a week for a year I did meet with the percussionists and some of the instrumentalists, and we would send cassettes to Caracas, and would get from them recordings back as the work was in progress. I traveled to Caracas two or three times, and we rehearsed and I composed as I was getting to know some of the most striking voices of their chorus. The chorus cooked the lunches, and they sewed the costumes. It was a very humble and beautiful process."
There's something for everybody in Golijov's Pasión, a people-friendly work that shares at least a surface similarity to his recent pieces, such as Ainadamar or Ayre, in which he counterpoints varied cultural perspectives. Yet an expansion of contemporary classical's audience is not such a big interest of Golijov's per se.
"It's always a matter of trying to find the constellation of idiom, the contrast of styles and genre that would go to the core of what the music is asking for. Every time I use a 'popular' style, there is a dramatic or musical need for it. I'm thinking, What is this about? And what does the piece mean?"
For both believers and secular listeners, La Pasión según San Marcos still holds a multiplicity of meanings.
"If it's a listener for whom the piece is primarily about faith," he says, "hopefully that listener will receive a new perspective on how the story remains the same but is lived in a different way in Latin America. And for everyone else, the rhythms of the continent create a transformative journey. I hope that at the end of the 90 minutes, there will be a sense of, if not the sacred, at least of the transcendence of music and life over death and noise."