Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

Opera, music, theater, and art in Los Angeles and beyond

And The Beat Goes On

April 25, 2010

Osvaldo Golijov and Maria Guinand embrace at the conclusion of La Pasión Sugún San Marcos
Photo: mine 2010

Nearly a decade after its premiere, Osvaldo Golijov’s La Pasión Según San Marcos arrived in Los Angeles last night as part of the L.A. Philharmonic’s “Americas and Americans” festival. In some ways it’s a wonder that it has taken so long for the piece to arrive here. San Marcos is arguably the most successful piece of contemporary “classical” music yet this century. It was famously written at the request of Helmuth Rilling, who commissioned Golijov and three other composers to create latter-day Passions in memory of the 250th anniversary of Bach’s death. What Rilling got was a huge surprise and an almost instant hit altering Golijov’s career trajectory radically upward. Golijov took segments of the St. Mark’s Passion and infused his music with Latin folk and dance rhythms. Actually, “infused” is not the word so much as imported wholesale. The revolution to that first audience, and many Western European and American audiences since then, is the contrast between a very familiar sacred story and music that European culture has rarely associated with it. La Pasión Según San Marcos was a natural fit for the L.A. Phil’s festival, looking specifically at composers and works originating in the Western Hemisphere. And unlike the festival’s prior program, is much less indebted to European musical conventions outside of the subject matter.

On Saturday night, the work continued to create new enthusiastic fans, and it is very hard to resist its many, many charms. It is both intensely spiritual and ironically joyful at the same time. The large chorus in augmented with a number of dancers and solo vocalists including Luciana Souza, Roeynaldo González Fernández, and, in these outings, soprano and previous-Golijov collaborator Jessica Rivera. There are a range of vocal traditions presented here and the performers were necessarily miked. A small group of players enacted some elements of the story through dance in a manner not outside of the tradition of Passion plays with an actively involved chorus dressed in white and purple. It’s quite a sight, and luckily for those who weren’t in attendance, the cast is the same as that on a new DG studio recording of the work released just this month that includes a DVD of a live performance in Amsterdam under the direction of Robert Spano in 2008. It's the next best thing to being there.

However, many of the questions that have dogged the piece from the beginning are still there. Is it kitsch? It may well be. But even if it is, to paraphrase the legendary Sandra Bernhard, “this is good, quality kitsch. The kind of kitsch you want in your home.” Perhaps the other great limitation of the work is that it relies on forces not typical for most organizations that regularly present high art music in the West. To date virtually all the performances of Golijov's Pasión around the world have been conducted with variants of the same groups present at the premiere, the Schola Cantorum de Venezuela and the “Orquestra La Pasión,” a band of string players, percussionists, dancers and other musicians who travel largely to perform this work. The evening’s conductor, Maria Guinand, was also present at the premiere and, alongside Robert Spano, has led nearly all of the piece’s major performances. Guinand is the Artistic Director of the Schola Cantorum and a close, long-time colleague of L.A. Phil music director Gustavo Dudamel. And, while it is a wonderful performance, it’s hard to see it having a life outside of this particular group of performers. But for two days in L.A. it is back again and the not-sold-out hall did have a family atmosphere on Saturday. Whether La Pasión Según San Marcos represents the future of “classical” music or a very-successful momentary side bar in its history remains to be seen. But last night, it didn't really matter.


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