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The Jewish Gaucho

They’re still talking about it in Stuttgart -- about the night, just over a year ago, when a capacity audience in that normally strait-laced metropolis went berserk for nearly half an hour at the world premiere of a 90-minute choral work from an unknown pen. ”Was Madonna in the hall?“ asked one local paper; ”or Michael Jackson?“ queried another. It was neither of the above, however; the music at hand bore the title The Passion According to Saint Mark. Its composer was a slender, Argentine-born Jewish-American composer named Osvaldo Golijov who, he tells me, was just as exhilarated and astonished as anyone at the ovation in Stuttgart‘s spacious Liederhalle that night. And if the name Osvaldo Golijov (GO-lee-ov) still seems strange, cherish the news that he’s on his way here to help fill in the blanks, beginning with the L.A. premiere of Last Round for string orchestra this weekend, continuing with the Chamber Music Society‘s program at the Skirball Center on November 5 and going on from there.

It’s interesting enough that a musician raised in the tradition of Yiddishkeit, in a backwoods enclave deep in the heart of Catholic Argentina, would come to grips with a biblical tragedy best known among music people as inspiration for generations of German Lutheran composers. (Golijov tells me that when the commission came, he had to run out and buy a copy of the New Testament.) For this you can thank Helmuth Rilling, distinguished conductor of Bach and, more to the point, head of the Stuttgart-based International Bach Society. It was Rilling who dreamed up the notion of dispatching four composers to create contemporary settings of the Passion narrative from the four Gospels, to honor Bach -- who himself had gotten around to completing only two -- on the 250th anniversary of his death. All four settings -- the others are by Tan Dun, Wolfgang Rihm and Sofia Gubaidulina -- were performed in the summer of 2000. Three have already been released on the Hanssler label; Tan Dun‘s reworking of the St. Luke text is due out, any year now, on Sony.

Assume that all four composers took it upon themselves to assimilate the ancient texts -- and their awareness of what Bach had accomplished with the words of Matthew and John -- into their own backgrounds; by just that assumption the eclecticism of Golijov’s heritage is the force that kindles his amazing work. On the phone from his home outside Boston, where he teaches composition on several local faculties, he compared his own approach to the task with what Bach himself must have reasoned. ”His way was to take something in music that belonged to everyone -- the Lutheran chorales that everybody sang in church -- and create something transcendent around it. If he could take the DNA of his own world and translate it into his music of, say, 1730, I can do the same with the DNA of my own world. The only difference is that Bach‘s world was very narrow, and mine has been very wide.“

And it’s that breadth of focus that sends this Pasion Segun San Marcos skyward: an extraordinary mirror into which the sublime sensibility of Bach gets stirred into the exuberance of a Latino street festival. It grabs you, it holds you tight, and at the end -- as the stricken Jesus filters into our sensibility to the throb of mambo rhythms while the Hebrew Kaddish sweeps over the ensemble as if from another world -- you find yourself uplifted and drained. Golijov‘s score calls for orchestra and chorus, plus a fabulous array of Latin percussion. His chorus, in Stuttgart and on the recording, is the formidable Schola Cantorum of Caracas led by Maria Guinand, astounding in its ability to flip from neo-baroque complexity to the full-throated outcry of a populace in pain. At Stuttgart -- and at a reprise in Boston last February -- a stage-filling dance-and-mime ensemble added to the wonderment; the whole indigenous ensemble comes together next year for a national tour, including a stop at Costa Mesa’s Eclectic Orange festival.

This isn‘t the only kind of music the 40-year-old Osvaldo Golijov has turned out to enrich our lives; his catalog displays a gratifying versatility. At Ojai last summer, Dawn Upshaw sang a dark, wrenching aria that Golijov had composed for her in 1999; that work, too, has now been incorporated into the Pasion. His best-known work to date, commissioned and recorded by the Kronos Quartet, is on next week’s program at Skirball: Dreams and Prayers of Isaac the Blind; this, too, blends -- no, rams -- unlikely cultures into one another, a Latin throb in the string quartet, the manic coloratura of a klezmer clarinet. On the drawing board: a violin concerto for Pamela Frank, to be performed in Minneapolis next winter.

”Certain works have to define where you come from,“ he says. ”I come from a small Jewish colony surrounded by Catholic Argentina. Almost 100 years ago a certain Baron Hirsch made it possible for a group of shtetl Jews to escape persecution by the czar and his Cossacks and set up farms in an unsettled region of Argentina. These gauchos Judeos, as they were called -- ‘Jewish gauchos’ -- never really assimilated. They held onto their Yiddishkeit, but they got along all right. My mother was a pianist, and she took me to Buenos Aires to hear opera and also to hear Astor Piazzolla‘s tangos. She sang to me in Yiddish, but she also got me to listen to Bach. Somehow, it all came together.“

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