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March 07, 2006

Full-Blooded Passion - Osvaldo Golijov's La Pasión Según San Marco

Posted by David Conway

Osvaldo Golijov's La Pasión Según San Marco
Orquesta La Pasión and Schola Cantorum de Carácas
conducted by Maria Guinand
Barbican Hall, London
24th February 2006

David Conway is usually left cold by World Music, but he is won over by a work which takes its inspiration from Latin American folk rhythms and melodies, Osvaldo Golijov's version of the St. Mark Passion.

Fascinated as I am by virtually all types of music (even in extreme cases, as when, for example, played on accordions), the vogue for so-called World Music has always left me cold. It all seems so earnest and insincere, and indeed, now it has taken over vast tracts of Radio 3 at the weekend, aggressively invasive. A few moments of drumming or wheedle-deeing in unknown modes or pulses may be intriguing but en masse it tends to come across not so much multi-cultural as anti-cultural, simply at cross-purposes with the emotional and cultural stimuli of music of the Western cultural tradition. This is all the more so when music of different cultures is speciously taken up by Western practitioners of musique savante who take it upon themselves to educate us poor stockaded intellectuals.

At least those who play this music in their own cultures can claim validity in their own context. But Western proselytes rarely seem to get it right. From Liszt onwards many attempted to wrench exotic melodies into acceptable European rhythmic and harmonic frameworks. The attempts of those with less talent than Liszt are now universally derided, although of course examples by Borodin and others are sufficiently distant to have a charm of their own – one might indeed include in this class the quaint settings of English and Scottish folk-songs by Beethoven.

Then in the twentieth century Bartók and Stravinsky decided to get tough. Their pairing of melody with aggressive and percussive accompaniment can be regarded on the one hand as an attempt to communicate peasant vigour; or one can join with Constant Lambert's comments, that accompaniment and tune are often bound together rather like an aggressive lawyer prosecuting an intimidated yokel. Later attempts in the twentieth century often ran, and failed, the risks of sentimentality, knowingness, or utter vacuity – leading to the sort of fatuous ramblings by "composers" like Einaudi that one can hear on Classic FM, or in lifts.

But here at last is a contemporary composer who can take up third world inspirations and recreate them into living music. I was won over in about ten seconds by the London première of Osvaldo Golijov's version of the St. Mark Passion, and remained enthralled for the remaining ninety minutes or so. Clearly this was the case also for the packed audience, who at its end, after a silence reflecting its moving power, gave it a stirring and lengthy ovation.

St. Mark's version of the gospel is direct – almost in-your-face – and Golijov works to its spirit. In thirty or so short numbers, ablaze with Latin American folk rhythms and melodies, he takes us from the Passover to the Crucifixion, presented by choir, dancer, singers and musicians who interchangeably take on the roles of narrator and principal characters in the style of carnival or street theatre. Avoiding both sentimentality and condescension to his musical materials, he irresistibly evokes in his audience a genuine passionate involvement in the story it already knows so well. There is nothing false in this musical representation – nothing of Godspell or Jesus Christ Superstar – it uses music to tell the story to the people of its time, just as Bach did for the Protestant congregations of Germany. And the implications of the story both in a broad historical context and in those of recent history are eloquently submitted to us as the solemn final chorus telling of the Crucifixion becomes gradually interspersed with the phrases of the Hebrew mourning prayer, the Kaddish.

The Pasión Según San Marco was in fact commissioned to celebrate the 250th anniversary of the death of J. S. Bach. Golijov would seem to have been born to undertake this work. He was born in La Plata, Argentina, to a Jewish Ukrainian doctor father and a Romanian Ashkenazi mother. Brought up studying classical music under his mother's tuition, he realised that "music was not something that had to come from Europe" when he first heard the music of Astor Piazzola, the tango king. His Jewish roots he explored further studying at the Rubin Academy in Jerusalem, before going on to the US to study with George Crumb. These influences are all further reflected in the sequence Ayre, written for and performed by the soprano Dawn Upshaw on a recent recording, beautifully conjuring up and merging Arabic, Jewish and Spanish music. I have been listening to it since acquiring it at the concert, and enjoy it more with each hearing.

The Pasión was conducted at its first performance in Germany by Maria Guinand, who also conducted in London, I would guess with largely the same forces as in Germany; here there were also some British reinforcements in the band. But with the exception of the soprano Anne-Carolyn Bird (whom the programme describes as "a specialist in the baroque repertoire" but was perfectly at home in the Pasión's idiom), the soloists and choir were virtually all Latin American and that of course gave force to the conviction of the performance. The thrilling voice of Luciana Souza and the urgent singing and dynamic dancing of Reynaldo González Fernández were especially powerful; but most memorable of all the intensity (and choreography) of the chorus, aggressively complaining at the anointment at Bethany, or reacting in numb horror to the story's dénouement. When this work is given in London again – and unlike most contemporary music, this piece must surely be given many, and further, outings – I urge everyone to experience and enjoy it.

David Conway's previous reviews for the Social Affairs Unit can be read here.

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