I went to hear Osvaldo Golijov’s Pasión según San Marcos at the Mostly Mozart Festival last Sunday night. Allan Kozinn’s New York Times review describes it accurately, if coolly. My Washington Post review of the 2002 New York premiere, by contrast, is stronger on enthusiasm than detail:
As for the New York premiere of Osvaldo Golijov’s “Pasión según San Marcos” at the BAM Opera House in Brooklyn, well, I’d have flown back from Tierra del Fuego on a two-seater to hear it, in part because I’d heard so much about it. No recent piece of classical music has been talked up more enthusiastically than this singularly ambitious setting of the Passion According to St. Mark. Not having been able to get up to Tanglewood last spring to check it out, I was eager to confirm or refute the fast-building buzz.
Guess what? It’s all true. Golijov’s St. Mark Passion is a rich musico-dramatic stew in which seemingly incompatible styles are jammed together like the sounds you might hear through the open window of a fast-moving car on a hot summer night. Classical strings, chattering brass, Afro-Cuban percussion, flamenco guitar, a Venezuelan chorus that struts and hollers like a black gospel choir–you name it, Golijov has stirred it in, not merely for effect but with the shrewd self-assurance of a composer who knows exactly what he’s about.
At the heart of the piece are two sharply contrasted female vocal soloists, and though it was Dawn Upshaw who had the most memorable aria, the elegant “Colorless Moon,” Luciana Souza stole the show anyway. Souza (pronounced SOH-za), a Brazilian jazz singer based in New York, has been mentioned in this space fairly frequently in the past year (Brazilian Duos, her latest CD, is my favorite vocal album of 2002), but this was the first time I had heard her other than in a club, and I was floored by the high drama of her singing. A slight woman dressed in a simple white shift and slippers, she looked and sounded ten feet tall: wild, charismatic, totally present. Even among jazz buffs, Souza is not yet widely known, but I left the theater sure that she is going to become a very bright star.
My hunch is that the same thing will happen to Osvaldo Golijov. The St. Mark Passion, mind you, is not without flaws. It’s a bit harmonically static and somewhat repetitive, and the over-miked Brooklyn Philharmonic failed to make the most of the string writing, though Robert Spano conducted the orchestra to within an inch of its life. Still, these are the merest quibbles over a piece whose total effect is roughly similar to the sensation of being knocked down by a tornado. It’s as if the whole thing comes at you in a single communicative flash and makes itself manifest instantaneously–which is, lest we forget, the mark of a masterpiece. Take note, Kennedy Center: This is a work you need to be presenting right away.
I’ve gone on a bit about Golijov’s St. Mark Passion because–well, just because I wanted to. For me, it was the major event of the year to date….
The St. Mark Passion has been recorded, but I didn’t listen to it again until last Sunday, partly because I was less impressed by the other works of Golijov that I’d heard in the meantime. I wondered whether I’d been bowled over by its sheer shock effect, and was more than a little bit skeptical about how it would strike me the second time around. I admitted as much to Alex Ross, who replied, “It will be interesting to see what you think of the Golijov encore. Listening again last summer (or was it the summer before) I found it less wild and festive, more of a serious, coherent, cannily controlled composition (possibly the result of Spano’s own control of the material). In all, I admired it even more.”
In fact I felt pretty much the same way about the St. Mark Passion on Sunday that I did in 2002. I still find it harmonically static–which is the main problem I have with Golijov’s other music–but the extraordinary textural variety makes up for the lack of strong tonal movement, and the overall effect of the piece is still pretty damned overwhelming, all the more so because I have an ingrained suspicion of the kind of flamboyant excess to which Golijov is inclined. Alex was right, though: a second hearing of the St. Mark Passion suggested to me as well that it is a much tighter, more precisely calculated piece of work than I’d realized.
As for Luciana Souza, I’m pleased and proud to say that I’ve been in her corner ever since I first heard Brazilian Duos late in 2001. My 2002 New York Times profile subsequently helped to put her in the spotlight, and what I said about her in my Post review of the St. Mark Passion, which came out a couple of months after the Times piece, has since been borne out in spades.
A good day’s work, in short. It’s gratifying to look back on an old review and know that you got it on the nose.