Osvaldo’s Song: A Great Pasión in Boston

For years, I have been attending concerts of new music with a sense of obligation and dread. Obligation, because of all the bright, beleaguered composers out there who are writing the music of our time and who deserve a hearing. Dread, because I suspect that what they have to say will be of interest largely to themselves, to the players, and perhaps to their former composition teachers. For the most part, today’s classical composers have not taken to heart E.M. Forster’s famous injunction, “Only connect.” Music that speaks to the emotions first, that takes you to the verge of tears or of terror–that, in other words, taps into the primal origins of music–is deemed suitable only for composers of pop, pap and rap, who chase the ephemeral gold of mass appeal.

The reasons for the isolation of today’s classical composers are too complex to go into here, but I think that a good part of it has to do with fear. Writing serious music is the most arduous of callings. The intensive study of 800 years of one’s predecessors is followed by the painful trial-and-error of finding one’s own voice, which is followed by a lifetime of working with only the sounds in one’s head–all in the hope that there will be people out there who want to play what you’ve written, as well as pay money to listen to it. Doing all this in a society whose media and marketing forces are generally indifferent, if not downright hostile, to your efforts is likely to turn even the bravest of souls into someone who seeks only the company of his own kind. It is no wonder, then, that so much new music seems turned in on itself, concerned more with personal expression than with public engagement, built on rejection rather than embrace.

Perhaps only someone who was born a stranger in his own land can have the fortitude to reconnect music to the tumult of life in the largest sense. I am thinking of a 40-year-old composer named Osvaldo Golijov, who grew up Jewish in Argentina, in a family that had emigrated from Russia and Romania in the 1920′s and that was strongly, atheistically Communist on one side and devoutly Jewish Orthodox on the other. Being surrounded by, yet alien from, a repressive Christian society that was as far removed from one’s origins as possible might have crushed another sensitive child. But in the case of Mr. Golijov, it seems only to have spurred his imagination, his curiosity to know–about the wellsprings of both Christian belief and African ritual, as they were transplanted to the Latin American continent beyond Buenos Aires.

I had heard and admired this young man’s early work in several haunting small pieces that have been recorded by the Kronos Quartet on Nonesuch. But nothing prepared me for the revelation of his biggest composition to date, a 90-minute setting of the mightiest story in the canon of Western music, the last days of Christ. Recently, I traveled to Boston to hear the North American premiere of La Pasión Según San Marcos ( The Passion According to St. Mark ), and I came away inspired to make this prediction: 20 or 30 years from now, when music historians can look back at the turn of the millennium with equanimity, it is the Golijov Pasión that will be cited as the work which did the most to lead classical music out of its ivory tower.

No one can set this story unaware of the monumental shadow of Bach’s St. Matthew’s Passion ; but while that work was a meditative call to prayer constructed on the terra firma of the four-part chorale, Mr. Golijov’s work is a pulsating cry of anger and sorrow, constructed out of the slithering, swaying pageantry of a Lenten street festival. Bach’s Passion takes a long view of Christ’s betrayal, suffering and death, seeing in those events a story for profound contemplation. The new Pasión reenacts the action not just before our ears but before our eyes, using theater and dance to pull it into the here and now, and banishing contemplation in favor of sensuous, spellbinding spectacle.

If this Pasión is the great popular masterwork I suspect it to be, it is because it is at once familiar and strange. In an interview in The Boston Globe , Mr. Golijov described his process of composing as that of a “sponge to absorb [the Latin American and African culture] and from it to distill a narrative.” He readily admitted that everything in the work was “modeled on an existing piece or on an established style.” Afro-Cuban patterns of drumming, supplemented by Brazilian shakers and scrapers, supply a dappled, forest-like ground of running feet. Popular dance styles–the mambo, the rumba, the bossa nova–lighten the deepening tragedy. Flamenco foot-stomping, at the point of Pilate’s interrogation of Jesus, raises tension to the breaking point. Quivering accordion licks add nighttime luridness. Tito Puente arrives in a braying of trumpets. Languorous ballads add a sorrowful sweetness. The magnificent Kaddish (the Jewish prayer for the dead) which ends the work comes out of the composer’s own ancestral roots.

Elevating the work above any hint of pastiche is Mr. Golijov’s deft use of contemporary classical idioms. Totemic repetitions of Stravinsky, the minimal churnings of Steve Reich and the wistful figuration of Arvo Pärt are woven into the translucent fabric, not as quotations but as enrichment. The effect is at once raw and sophisticated, and thanks to the composer’s skill at modulating moods–clamor gives way to quietude with the suddenness of stars coming out after a storm–riveting. Mr. Golijov has said that his Pasión isn’t about “personal expression” but about “people’s lives,” and I cannot think of another recent work that so thoroughly dissolves distinctions between “classical” and “popular,” “contemporary” and “traditional.”

It is also a work that must have been immensely difficult to prepare. The Boston performances, in Symphony Hall, came four months after the Pasión ‘s highly acclaimed world premiere in Stuttgart, where it was heard as part of a multinational festival of four new Passions commissioned by the conductor and Bach specialist Helmuth Rilling. (The other Passion composers were Sophia Gubaidulina, Wolfgang Rihm and Tan Dun.) In Boston, Mr. Golijov, who is currently on the faculties of Holy Cross College and the Tanglewood Music Center, had the services of the Boston Symphony, the intrepid American conductor Robert Spano, and the same chorus, dancers and Latin-American instrumentalists who were heard in Stuttgart to such sensational effect.

All of them performed with unflagging generosity of spirit, but particular mention must be made of the choristers from the Schola Cantorum de Caracas. Despite some marvelous solos–an aria about Peter’s tears, “Colorless Moon,” sung by the soprano Elizabeth Keusch, recalls Villa-Lobos’ “Bachianas Brasilieras” in its sorrowing luminosity–this Pasión is essentially a dialogue between chorus and percussion. In Boston, the interplay between the two was electrifying. The Venezuelan choristers, a multiracial assemblage of men and women who can clap and stomp as well as they can sing, must be counted among the handful of the world’s great vocal ensembles, and they may be unrivaled for the range of sounds they can produce. Mr. Golijov has said that one of his inspirations was Picasso’s Guernica , and I can only imagine how astonished the painter would have been to hear the silent shriek in his great canvas made audible by the collective power of these singers.

Plans are in the works for them to take Pasión on the road, and whenever it happens to roar through town, it is not to be missed.