There is a fierce aura of authenticity about Osvaldo Golijov's La Pasión Según San Marcos. It's a compelling yet hard-to-describe quality that surely helps explain why audiences explode the moment that final "Amen" fades away and the musicians, overcome, fall into each other's arms as they take their bows. Composed in 2000 to commemorate the 250th anniversary of Bach's death, Pasión generates an intense emotional response wherever it is performed, and it did so once again at the Brooklyn Academy of Music when Robert Spano conducted the work with the Brooklyn Philharmonic, La Schola Cantorum de Caracas, Orquestra La Pasión, and a varied assortment of vocal soloists, dancers, and drummers.
Essentially, what Golijov has done is to reimagine the Passion story in terms of his own experience growing up in Catholic Argentina as the son of Eastern European Jews. "How would Jesus live and act in Latin America?" Golijov seems to be asking himself. "And how would Bach compose a Passion if he had lived in South America at the end of the twentieth century?" The answers tumble out in this pulsating, sometimes disheveled, but always arresting and often ecstatic music, which so accurately reflects the impulsive, almost frantic narrative pace that characterizes the Gospel According to Mark.
Although percussive rhythms dominate the score, there is an astonishing diversity of musical forces at work: conventional Western instruments, guitars and accordions, Brazilian drummers, Afro-Cuban dancers, a soprano (Dawn Upshaw), a jazz singer (Luciana Souza), and a large choral group. The musical styles echoed here are just as eclectic: Gregorian chant, Stravinsky, high Baroque, and classical minimalism, which all blend harmoniously with such popular Latin forms as rumba, mambo, bossa nova, flamenco, and capoeira. What makes it work, aside from Golijov's sheer compositional skill, is the same burning spirit that makes an African black Madonna or a medieval Pietà such strikingly authentic works of art, no matter how far removed they may be from the physical reality of the people and events that inspired them. Golijov uses his musical symbols to achieve much the same effect, and in La Pasión Según San Marcos he has produced an artistic statement no less potent or genuine.