The Many Passions of Osvaldo Golijov

Review: Osvaldo Golijov’s La Pasión según San Marcos

Osvaldo Golijov is the new safe composer. By that I mean, presenters can program his music without the fear of concertgoers walking out mid-performance, and without the risk of the NEA cutting funding. In La Pasión según San Marcos, an oratorio-like telling of the St. Mark Passion presented over the weekend at Lincoln Center’s Rose Theater as part of the Mostly Mozart Festival, Golijov didn’t miss these expectations, but to what end all this safety is aimed leaves a lot to be asked.

About Golijov’s style. Publicity will play up the “influence” factor his work; Latin influences, African influences, Carribean (Latin/African) influences. They also play up where he’s from–Argentina. And, they disclose his religious heritage–Jewish. All of this to get the prospective ticket-buyer (and grant administrator) to go, Wow, an Argentine Jewish composer who incorporates Latin and African and Carribean influences into classical music–now that I gotta hear! (Or fund.) Now it is evident that Golijov is a composer of acute talents, and his musicianship is of world-class caliber, however, the result of this quilting of influences results in an inevitable cluster-fuck-hyphenating-world-music-slash-classical-music melange. Not unpleasant to listen to, but beguiling to experience.

I must clarify that Golijov doesn’t inflect his music with these cultural styles–he writes in them. If anything is ever used to inflect, it is actually the aesthetic of classicism; not the other way around.

The problem at the heart of all of this is that by presenting side-by-side genres of music that have rather divergent roles in culture, we become (or should become) confused when asked to experience them under the umbrella of the classical concert.

For example, one minute you’ll be listening the some wonderful choral writing–as is throughout this work, and that is La Pasión’s chief success–and the next, some guy steps up to a microphone and starts singing in a style that, generally speaking, you would only hear at a pop concert specifically presenting that kind of music or at one of the block parties that go on all summer in my neighborhood. All the classical orchestral inflection in the world can’t pull you out of a Salsa or a Flamenco. So, as an audience participant, you’re left with the frustrating task of reorienting your observational context, and realistically, you downgrade your classical expectations to meet the relational needs of the popular idiom.

And in doing this, I’m not sure what the payoff is. To accept the Latin and African beats is to want to by physically moved. You want to dance when you hear it. You want to let it move your body, but, looking around the theater, you could count on one hand the number of people who were even slightly nodding their heads–and this is to music that will light a fire in your belly in the appropriate context.

To further complicate this whole experience is that the work at hand is about the Passion of Jesus Christ. So you’ll be like, sitting in your seat wanting to get your groove on, but then you stop and flagellate yourself mentally because you noticed in the super-titles that the chorus is singing “Death to Jesus!” The point is that if you close your eyes, you can’t tell whether you should feel happy, sad or horny. And if classical music is proclaimed to do anything special, it’s to tap into universal realms of emotion and convey them in a way that only music can. Unfortunately, even reading the program notes and learning the Flamenco songs are all about agony and anguish doesn’t quite convince the audience that it’s okay to nod your head while Jesus is getting crucified.

And a word about the program notes. David Harrington interviews Golijov extensively in an attempt to mine the composer for insight into the work. Reading the conversation does give insight into the work, but also to the pomp and circumstance that classical composers find necessary to kick up around their creative process in order to defend their music. Golijov no less compares this work to Picasso’s Guernica, claiming that everything about this music is symbolic, and that what Picasso did to the horse figure in the painting, he has done with indigenous music in La Pasión. If you say so…

The work also falls into a trap with how it was presented at the theater: WHY IS THE ORCHESTRA ON STAGE?! This is really a misstep. They sounded just fine, but they’re not interesting enough to watch for an hour and a half, save the masterful percussionists that continually impressed with their skills. Situating the orchestra on stage created a crappy feng shui nightmare that prevented anything theatrical from really being possible.

They reserved on corner of the stage (down right) for a few dramatic moments: I call this “Capoeira Corner,” because that’s where Deraldo Ferreira would come out for his dance solos (I’m telling you, the area of the stage was smaller that Dixon Place). The inclusion of this Brazilian martial art was, I’m sure, intended to add to the Latin/African cornucopia of flare, but became obstrusive when, in Jesus’ darkest hour, Ferreira Capoeira-kicks him, just as he’s miming being nailed to the cross! Again, the aesthetics came across as fun rather than tragic, and, once again, you feel bad about enjoying watching bad things happen to Jesus.

The panoramic choice of soloist voices was more evidence of the aesthetic indecision of this work. Luciana Souza, seemingly well known for her jazz and Latin popular singing, was consistently outshone by opera singer Jessica Rivera, whose few moments were all top notch and inspiring in the way that only opera singing achieves. I felt bad for Souza, because what might have been riveting popular singing felt flat and weak next to an unamplified operatic voice. And this is the essential problem. It is not that one kind of music is better than the other, it’s that they satisfy different needs. And, side by side, one will look foolish, and one will astound.

There were other aesthetic blunders in the work. A Lion King-inspired moment when the choir crouches down and then jumps up as the drums beat to African polyrhythms. An oddly-placed (although beautifully sung) aria set to a peom that is meant to convey Peter’s regret for thrice denying Jesus, but feels too Verdian and non sequitur.

Yet after all of this, and after I had even written down in my notes, “does not tell us anything new about the Passion,” the piece ended…AND JESUS HAD NOT RISEN. Holy shit! This is awesome. A Passion where Jesus doesn’t get up and save us all from sin and death? Sweet. I can’t say that the work accomplished what Golijov claims to want to accomplish, re-contextualizing the Passion in the Latin-American and African experiences. If I were to guess, I would say the choice was also tuned to Golijov’s belief that Jesus is not the son of God, which he admits in the interview.

Hey, I agree with him there, but nothing about La Pasión según San Marcos gave me new perspective on my own atheism, other than maybe realizing that the death of Jesus can be kind of fun. It’s really a misdirected effort to incorporate globalism into a medium that inherently defies indigenousness–save maybe certain works of Bartok and Copland (among others). It also highlights the fundamental cynicism of classical music presenters. They seem to be banking on the belief that audiences have less-than-finely-tuned appreciative skills for classical fare, which isn’t an entirely improbably reality given the state of our public education system, which exhibits no belief in the value of the arts. I’ll admit that upon the conclusion of the piece, a healthy audience ovation met the performers. But I can only guess as to what these standing, clapping people were applauding. I would hope that they would be able to tell me.

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1 Comment

  1. (A bit of a delayed reaction) At last I found an article on Golijov’s music that I can relate to. He is just that, a “safe” composer, for the “artistic” organisations. But actually, it wasn’t “safe” with me as I had to walked out of one of his operas some time ago at the interval…


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