Osvaldo Golijov, born in La Plata 52 years ago, is the most famous Argentine living composer, though not the best. In fact he was better known in New York than in our city. Until last week, when his most celebrated composition was premiered here starting the Colón lyric season: “The St. Mark Passion”. A colleague called it “the most important score of the twenty-first century”. I can´t concur, but it was certainly worth knowing. It is not an opera but an oratorio, albeit a “sui generis” one that needs some staging. It came about in a special way: back in 2.000 the Bach specialist Helmut Rilling convoked four composers to write Passions to commemorate the 250 years of Johann Sebastian Bach´s death. Sofia Gubaidulina did her “St. John” linking it to the Orthodox Church; Tan Dun rather ludicrously wrote his “St. Matthew” on the cycle of water (that´s the sort of thing this Chinese-American does); and Wolfgang Rihm controversially based his “St. Luke “ on the Holocaust. Rilling chose Golijov for the “St Mark” because he is South-American and Jew: the founder of the Stuttgart Bach Academy wanted passions in four languages and traditions : Russian, English, German and Spanish.
In the recent Colón magazine there is a very complete dossier (including the text) on Golijov and his “St Mark”, particularly a comprehensive interview with the composer. His statements are quite interesting and candid. He is not a believer but feels that Christ was touched by the divine, and the project made him understand the values of Christianity. He is politically a leftist and he compares Che Guevara to Christ (¡?), whilst he blames Christ´s death on the hierarchies, not on the people (but it is the “turbae” that shout “Barrabam!” when Pilate makes them choose which one to save, the thief or Christ...). As he explicitly tells us, Argentine religious mores seemed to him boring, and so he went to syncretic sources of inspiration: namely, Bahia (Brazil) and Cuba, with their mixtures of African animism and Christianity; especially, the yorubas and their candomblé traditions.
As his “Ainadamar” opera showed (it was premiered last year at La Plata), he is very skillful in the combining of different musical idioms (in that case, Flamenco and the European classical music tradition). His technique is highly accomplished and in this “St Mark” there is a fantastic array of different academic and popular styles, going from Gregorian roots to candomblé. He tells us that he wanted an “Africanised Spanish”, although in fact considering his sources an “Africanised Portuguese” would have been more logical. Texts: some chapters from St.Mark (the most direct of the four Gospels, closest to the oral tradition of Africans), fragments of Job´s Lamentation, a lovely Galician poem by Rosalía de Castro, and to finish, “Kaddish”, in Aramean, the Jewish prayer for the dead, instead of the Resurrection.
The orchestra has a small group of strings, lots of percussion, a good deal of brass (including a fanfare), and features instruments that come from folk and popular music: varieties of guitar (tres, cuatro), birimbao, African percussion instruments. An immense choir subdivides into three groups in some pieces, and several of them are soloists. As Mario Videla´s programme notes specify, in the 34 numbers, we hear “samba, bossa nova, Gregorian chant, ´son´, Stravinskian echoes, guajira, flamenco, tango, instrumental enchantments ´a la Steve Reich´ , klezmer and iddish melismas and some Bachian touches”. The story is frequently narrated by the choir and Christ can be sung by them or by a solo woman. I could have done without three capoeira dances, and by the weak personification of Christ; in fact, the theatrical elements (which have scant physical space) are distracting and mediocre.
The same group of artists (apart from the orchestral strings) have been doing this work in many parts of the world since its 2000 premiere, and have recorded it twice. So what the Colón bought is a well-routined package. Central to the success it has had is the Schola Cantorum de Venezuela, admirably guided by María Guinand: they are precise, involved, expressive even in their gestures (in fact the best theatrical factor of the evening) and completely musical. And their soloists all did their bits with commitment. The Colón strings collaborated well.
The Orquesta La Pasión, built ad-hoc, has five percussionists led by Mikael Ringqvist; a guitarist; a bassist; two trumpets (deliberately harsh and wildly Latin-jazzy); two trombones; and a rare hyper-accordion stretching the sounds electronically. One of the percussionists is also billed as salsa singer! They are excellent players. The Choir soloists unfairly aren´t credited in the hand programme. I was much impressed by Biella Da Costa, Venezuelan, described as jazz vocalist; in fact, her deep contralto and inflexions are rather those of a gospel singer, and this is indeed a gospel! María Hinojosa Montenegro is a Catalan soprano; she sang with much taste and radiance, although with excessive vibrato in some notes.
Accepting his presence, Deraldo Ferreira is a good capoeirista (and player of berimbau). Reynaldo González Fernández is an Afro-Cuban singer and dancer doing mainly the job of Evangelist as a Senegal story-teller might: his raw, harsh projection is not what the Colón generally hears, but I suppose this is what Golijov wanted.
Final reaction: too much “boom-boom” at times, but mostly worthwhile in the trendy fusion movement. Some parts were genuinely moving.