The Jewish Gaucho

They're still talking about it in Stuttgart—about the night in the summer of 2000 when a capacity audience in that normally strait-laced metropolis went berserk for nearly half an hour at the world premiere of a 90-minute choral work from an unknown pen. “Was Madonna in the hall?” wondered one local paper. “Michael Jackson?” asked another. It was neither of the above, however: the music at hand bore the title The Passion According to St. Mark. Its composer was a slender, Argentine-born Jewish-American composer named Osvaldo Golijov (pronounced GO-lee-ov), who, he says, was just as exhilarated and astonished as anyone at the ovation in Stuttgart's spacious Liederhalle that night. So cherish the news that Passion is currently OC-bound—with virtually the same cast—as the not-to-be-missed high-decibel mark of the current Eclectic Orange Festival.

It's interesting enough that a composer raised in the tradition of Yiddishkeit in a backwoods enclave deep in the heart of Catholic Argentina would come to grips with a biblical happening best known among music people as inspiration for generations of German Lutheran composers. (Golijov says that when the commission came in, he had to run out and buy a copy of the New Testament.) For this, you can thank Helmuth Rilling, distinguished conductor of Bach and, more to the point, head of the Stuttgart-based International Bach Society.

It was Rilling who dreamed up the notion to dispatch four composers to create contemporary settings of the Passion narrative from the four Gospels to honor Bach, who himself had gotten around to completing only two, on the 250th anniversary of his death. All four settings—the others are by Tan Dun, Wolfgang Rihm and Sofia Gubaidulina—were performed in the summer of 2000. Three have already been released on the Haenssler label; Tan Dun's reworking of the St. Matthew text, complete with water percussion, is due out in November on Sony. Assume that all four composers took it upon themselves to unite the ancient texts and their awareness of what Bach had accomplished with the words of Matthew and John with their own worlds; by that assumption, the eclecticism of Golijov's own background is the force that kindles his amazing work. On the phone from his home outside Boston, where he teaches composition on several local faculties, he compared his own approach to the task with what Bach himself must have reasoned.

“His way was to take something in music that belonged to everyone—the Lutheran chorales that everybody sang in church—and create something transcendent around it,” he says. “If he could take the DNA of his own world and translate it into his music of, say, 1730, I can do the same with the DNA of my own world. The only difference is that Bach's world was very narrow, and mine has been very wide.”

And it's that breadth of focus that sends this Pasin Segn San Marcos skyward: an extraordinary concoction in which the sublime sensibility of Bach gets stirred into the throb and exuberance of a Latino street festival. It grabs you, it holds you tight, and at the end—as the stricken Jesus filters into our sensibility to the throb of mambo rhythms while the Hebrew Kaddish sweeps over the ensemble as if from another world—you find yourself uplifted and drained. Golijov's score calls for orchestra and chorus, plus a wondrous array of Latino percussion. His chorus, in Stuttgart and on the recording, is the formidable Schola Cantorum of Carcas led by Maria Guinand, astounding in its ability to flip from neo-Baroque complexity to the full-throated outcry of a populace in pain. At Stuttgart and at a later reprise in Boston, a stage-filling dance and mime ensemble added to the wonderment; the whole indigenous ensemble comes together this year for a national tour, with Costa Mesa as the first stop. “Certain works have to define where you come from,” Golijov says. “I come from a small Jewish colony surrounded by Catholic Argentina. Almost 100 years ago, a certain Baron Hirsch made it possible for a group of shetl Jews to escape persecution by the tsar and his Cossacks and set up farms in an unsettled region of Argentina. These Gauchos Judeos, as they were called—'Jewish gauchos'—never really assimilated. They held onto their Yiddishkeit, but they got along all right. My mother was a pianist, and she took me to Buenos Aires to hear opera and also to hear Astor Piazzolla's tangos. She sang to me in Yiddish, but she also got me to listen to Bach. Somehow, it all came together.”


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