By Robert D. Thomas
Pasadena Star-News/San Gabriel Valley Tribune/Whittier Daily News
Osvaldo Golijov: La Pasión según San Marcos
Orquestra La Pasión; Schola Cantorum of Venezuela; Maria Guinand, conductor.
Luciana Souza, vocalist, Jessica Rivera, soprano, Reynaldo González Fernández, Afro-Cuban singer and dancer, Deraldo Ferreira, capoerista/berimba
Saturday, April 24 • Walt Disney Concert Hall
Last performance: Today at 2 p.m.
The year of our Lord 2000 was a momentous time. It was the last year of the second millennium, the year when many were convinced the world was going to come to crash (remember Y2K?), and the 250th anniversary of the great composer and organist Johann Sebastian Bach.
As 2000 approached, Helmuth Rilling — founder of the Oregon Bach Festival and the Internationale Bachakademie Stuttgart, among others — was searching for exactly right way to honor the man to whom he had devoted his life.
He knew that Bach performances would be legion; to cite just one example, organist Paul Jacobs, who played a recital in Walt Disney Concert Hall last Sunday (LINK), spent 18 hours one day in New York City playing Bach’s entire organ repertoire. Rilling also knew that thousands of choirs would sing Bach’s major choral works: cantatas, oratorios, the B-Minor Mass and, most importantly, the St. Matthew Passion and St. John Passion.
Rather than contribute to that glut of performances, Rilling created “Passion 2000” for the Internationale Bachakademie Stuttgart and commissioned four composers — Tan Dun, Osvaldo Golijov, Wolfgang Rihm, and Sofia Gubaidulina — to create Passions depicting the final week of Jesus’ life as recounted by the four Gospel writers: Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, respectively.
Of the four, La Pasión según San Marcos by Golijov, a then-relatively unknown Argentine composer, has gained the most fame. The forces that created that first performance — including Orquestra La Pasión, the choral group Schola Cantorum of Venezuela and several soloists, all conducted by Maria Guinand — brought their exciting, pulsating, Latin-flavored telling of Mark’s gospel to Disney Hall last night. A large crowd came out for the “happening;” the attendees included Los Angeles Philharmonic Music Director Gustavo Dudamel, who Guinand said in a preconcert lecture she first met when Dudamel was age 15 and seeking her counsel about conducting Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9.
It’s hard to adequately describe La Pasión según San Marcos. Golijov is a master of subtle colors and uses them widely in this 90-minute piece. The work was written specifically for Schola Cantorum and that proved to be something of a culture shock for Golijov. “He’s from Argentina,” explained Guinand before the performance, “which is very much influenced by European Spanish. But Venezuela draws on Caribbean, Brazilian and African influences.” She cited one specific example: “In Argentina, the Holy Week processions are dignified and somber,” she said with a chuckle. “In Venezuela we carry the saints in the streets with drums, dancing and lots of rum drinking!” In the end, Golijov supplied the notes; Guinand and Schola Cantorum filled in the blanks with great flair.
With just a few notable exceptions (the aria Colorless Moon being the most memorable) the piece — sung mostly in Spanish with projected English translations — stays true to Mark’s text (even Colorless Moon was a nod to Bach, who used arias in his Passions to embellish the Gospel message). Highly effective lighting contributed to the mood all evening, as did several important dance numbers, including the gripping crucifixion and death scene at the end. The only thing that Disney Hall doesn’t do well is to handle amplified sound and last night was no exception. Fortunately, the occasional balance and diction issues weren’t worth more than a quibble.
The 54-member chorus plays a prominent role throughout, and this group is truly remarkable both as a singing ensemble and in its sometimes-intricate choreography. It used the top row of the orchestra risers, sometimes singing as a single unit and at other times dividing into smaller ensembles. It also provided soloists for some of the smaller roles. The 24-member orchestra, with a wide variety of Latin percussion instruments, has members seemingly in constant motion, not only with their hands while playing but shifting back and forth between instruments and occasionally popping up to the front of stage for singing and/or dancing. The entire ensemble’s versatility makes the production as economical as possible; all things, of course, are relative.
In contrast to the Bach Passions where soloists portray specific roles, Golijov’s Passion is an eclectic mélange. For example, the chorus and different male and female singers portray Jesus at various times throughout the evening. Luciana Souza’s earthy voice was dramatically effective in her vocalist portions. Soprano Jessica Rivera (who neither used nor needed a microphone) was radiant in the Eucharist scene, which she sang from the organ loft symbolically high above the fray, and stunning in Colorless Moon. Reynaldo González-Fernández was effective both as a singer and a dancer.
Guinand, who looks like a tall, slim goddess on the podium, has honed her musicians to a razor’s edge. She conducted with authority and sensitivity throughout, using some of the same gestures that we see from Dudamel. Following the performance, she moved deep into the orchestra and then the chorus during the tumultuous ovation to thank her musicians, and she acknowledged patrons on all sides of the house. If José Abreu is Gustavo’s father figure, Maria Guinand appears to be his maternal influence. Lucky Gustavo.
Unlike the Bach Passions, which can be sung by any highly competent church choir or chorale, it’s hard to imagine Golijov’s Passion being performed by anyone other than the original groups. Who knows what will happen when Guinand steps down, although quite likely there’s a young conductor-to-be in training with this choral equivalent to “El Sistema.” However, if you want to hear La Pasión según San Marcos in its original form, tomorrow may be your last chance locally for quite some time. Don’t miss the opportunity!
(c) Copyright 2010, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved. Portions may be quoted with attribution.
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