Must-See Musical Event: “La Pasión según San Marcos”

Minnesota Orchestra is finishing up its amazing Sommerfest summer season this weekend… and let me be blunt. I need you to stop reading this post—stop whatever you’re doing—and go immediately to get tickets to see the grand finale, La Pasión según San Marcos (“The Passion According to St. Mark”) being performed on August 2 and 3.  Go.  I’ll wait.

No, I’m serious. Go. Right now.

I don’t care that you think you’re “busy.” I don’t care that you’re actually out of town on vacation. I don’t care who is getting married. Just go get your tickets. You will thank me later.

Okay… back?  Great!  Now, let me say a few words about why I’m so excited.


* * *

La Pasión según San Marcos is a musical treasure like no other.

The legendary German conductor Helmut Rilling commissioned the work in 1996, in preparation for the 250th anniversary of J.S. Bach’s birth.  The plan was to present four new Passions, inspired by Bach’s magisterial St. Matthew and St. John Passions.  In an effort to emphasize the broad impact of these works on music from around the world, Rilling committed to commissioning both Western and non-Western composers; the final four selected were Golijov, Wolfgang Rihm, Sofia Gubaidulina, and Tan Dun.

Goliov was, to put it mildly, an unconventional choice.  He is Jewish and hails from Argentina; his family fled from Russia and Romania earlier in the 20th century.  He noted that he had never read the text, and had to head out to his local bookstore to buy a copy of the New Testament.  But having grown up in a predominantly Catholic country, he knew all about cultural Christianity, and how the faith was lived out among people’s daily lives.  Intrigued by the challenge, he jumped into the project with great excitement.

A key to Golijov’s concept was that he wanted to tell it from a distinctly Latin American perspective, along the lines of a contemporary street performance or religious procession.  He centered his musical language on a fusion of popular and classical music, playing with styles, structures and singing techniques to create a radically new approach. One break from tradition was to dispense with official singing roles—there is no single figure of “The Evangelist,” or Jesus, Peter, or Judas. Instead, the words of the gospel are shared among soloists (both male and female), or given to groups of singers or the choir as a whole.  Golijov’s stated intent for doing so was to emphasize the Divine in all of us, and to make the story less about individuals but about all of us.  We all condemn, we all forgive, we all suffer… we all live this story in our own lives.

The music is remarkable.  It leans heavily on African-Latin music from Cuba and Brazil, but includes elements of flamenco, art song, and more traditional choral music.  Stunningly, Golijov ends the work with a Kaddish sung in Aramaic, returning the story back to its ancient Jewish roots.

In terms of performance, the work is designed to be staged, similar to Leonard Bernstein’s Mass.  The performers include male and female soloists, a 60-member chorus (eight of whose members serve as additional soloists), and a specially designed orchestra with extended percussion section. Key parts of the story are given over to dancers.

I have no idea what audience members were expecting when they filed into the Beethovenhalle in Stuttgart, Germany, for the premiere in 2000… but they were completely overwhelmed.  The work was famously greeted by a riotous, 20-minute standing ovation.  Critics were equally blown away, with everyone including the legendary Alex Ross proclaiming the work the first inarguable masterpiece of the 21st Century.

The following snippet will give some indication of what the work sounds like.  This sequence begins with Judas’s fateful decision to turn Jesus in to the authorities.  The story is first told as narrative, with the chorus adding weight and tension. The soloist depicts Judas’s internal struggle as the music builds and becomes more and more intense. Finally, a new interjection ratchets the tension further: Jesus’s words “But woe to that man who betrays the Son of Man! It would be better for him if he had not been born!” are given to a trio of women, who snarl it out as a maternal—and eternal—curse.


But the music isn’t just bold and brash.  How different is this subsequent, contrasting section, which takes place in the Garden of Gethsemane as Jesus agonizes over his coming fate… a powerful, yet lyrical moment of contemplation:


And a highlight of the entire work, “Lúa Descolorida,” which serves as the “Peter’s Tears” Aria after he denies being a follower of Jesus. Just listen to this, as performed by Dawn Upshaw:


The Minnesota Orchestra performance will be led by Maria Guinand, a fantastic conductor who also led the premiere.  Jessica Rivera, who also performed in the original, will serve as the soprano soloist.  The chorus will consist of the Minnesota Chorale, guest singers from Latin America, and the local ensemble BorderCrossing—they’ve done an astonishing job of presenting Latin America’s Baroque music here in town. I’m particularly intrigued to see the capoeira dancers… capoeira is a Brazilian dance form that originated as a form of martial arts used among the slaves, and now combines elements of acrobatics and modern dance.

La Pasión según San Marcos is one of the most electric, and fascinating works of the season. Do. Not. Miss. This!


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