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Latin Passion: Osvaldo Golijov’s La Pasión según San Marcos

Osvaldo Golijov truly has a distinctive ability to transcend musical boundaries. As this season’s holder of the Richard and Barbara Debs Composer’s Chair at Carnegie Hall, his largest project within his residency is yet to come:La Pasión según San Marcos, live at Carnegie Hall on Sunday, March 10.

Golijov’s oratorio combines the classical influences of Mahler and Beethoven with a direct reflection of what it means to write music in today’s multicultural landscape.

Osvaldo Golijov in conversation with Carnegie Hall’s Director of Artistic Planning Jeremy Geffen

For those who may not be familiar with the work, explain how La Pasión según San Marcos differs from other retellings of the Passion.

La Pasión is an attempt to tell the story of the Passion as it is lived and felt in Latin America, more specifically in the areas of Latin America influenced by the cultures of Cuba and the northeastern part of Brazil. These are geographic and cultural and musical places that have syncretized colliding cultures, such as the Yoruba (the African culture that was brought by the people who came enslaved to the Americas), the native cultures of those locales, and the colonizers from Portugal and Spain. Because the message of the Passion story is universal, it remains intact, but it has been adapted in a very profound way in these places. What I have tried to do is present this other view of the truth. If the Passion were a painting, it would be the crucifixion, of course. In the same way that out of the thousands of crucifixion paintings emerged Dalí’s interpretation, or Picasso’s wilder view of that moment, La Pasión musically presents a different perspective of something that was familiar and had a tradition inherent in its storytelling.

La Pasion

For those who are used to hearing Passions by Bach, La Pasión is much more ecstatic. It has the introversion of Bach in places, but its spectrum is incredibly dynamic.

The idea of La Pasión (like the other three Passions that were composed in 2000 for Bach’s anniversary) was to show how this story has in many ways changed in Latin America, while also preserving its original meaning. In Latin America, for instance, dancing is as spiritual as singing an aria is in Italy, so this Passion includes dance. The same is true for chanting and drumming. Just as Bach worked with Lutheran chorales, I worked with musical roots that were already there, present, and associated with the returning or reenactment of the Passion story in Latin America.

As part of this project at Carnegie Hall, you are reunited with two great colleagues and champions of your works—Robert Spano and María Guinand. When did you first work with Spano?

I met Robert when I was a student at Tanglewood in 1990 and he was assisting Seiji Ozawa at the Boston Symphony. We became friends, but we never collaborated until La Pasión 10 years later. To me, the most beautiful thing about collaborating with him is that there’s absolutely no need to speak. We talk about everything except the music because he understands it better than I do—and this is why I have worked with him on nearly everything I’ve written that involves an orchestra. And, like María, he found a language—a repertory of gestures— and a function to the conductor that is necessary in La Pasión, which is absolutely different from the function of the conductor in other classical works. He has to sometimes just let things happen, because there are many areas of La Pasión that work on their own as a human machine, and the conductor sometimes has to intervene and sometimes not. I had no idea how this thing would be conducted, but Robert found a way.

And what about the Schola Cantorum de Venezuela’s director María Guinand?

I first encountered María in 1996, when I wrote a piece called Oceana. When I accepted the commission for La Pasión, it was conditional that María and the Schola do it, because I knew it would not happen without them. María gave birth to La Pasión, in a way, because we worked on it for so many months, and she shaped it together with me and the chorus.

La Pasion

There’s an accepted style of singing in the Western canon, from which La Pasión differs. Can you explain why that departure is so important to this piece?

Singing is the fundamental musical expression that we all share. Some of us sing in the shower and others of us sing professionally. When it comes to classical music and choral singing, there are rules and so forth, and of course they work very well. But then there are styles of singing that don’t come from those standardized rules but are essential to using the voice as an instrument. We could think, for instance of Russian singing, like hearing Mussorgsky’s opera Boris Godunov sung by a Russian chorus in Russian. Throats carry a certain DNA, and with it a cultural truth. In a similar way, the Schola Cantorum is able to adhere to the standard rules of singing, but also liberate itself from those rules when necessary, to present that truth of certain Latin American repertory. But in La Pasión, we are not singing in ways that damage the voice. We are not asking for anything that is strange just for strangeness’s sake. Every vocal demand that comes in La Pasión comes from a spiritual need and a musical truth. 10

For this performance, New York City high school students are joining members of the Schola Cantorum de Venezuela. Is this the next step for the piece?

I hope so. For me, this is the highest point—the point in which your music becomes part of the culture through young people. To imagine that all of these high school students will be singing La Pasión is more moving than anything else I could imagine, more than the most prestigious soloists and the most prestigious orchestra. That there exists a music that could become part of the culture is really as much as I can aspire to as a composer.

March 10, La Pasión según San Marcos
Creative Learning Projects
Maria Guinand and Pasión según San Marcos: ''You Need to Live It in Your Skin''

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