Osvaldo Golijov
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The Passion Returns to Oregon
From the Oregon Bach Festival

La Pasión Returns to its Birthplace

The opening music of the 2005 Oregon Bach Festival is a breakthrough work coming for the first time to the place of its origin.

La Pasión según San Marcos by Osvaldo Golijov, a 90-mimute setting of the passion story in the form of a Brazilian Lenten street festival, created an immediate sensation when it was premiered in Stuttgart in 2000. Nearly unanimous critical praise followed its ensuing performances in New York, Boston, Chicago, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and other major cities.

But the seeds of La Pasión were sewn in the fertile ground of Oregon, when the Oregon Bach Festival commissioned Golijov for its 1996 Bach and the Americas project. His cantata Oceana impressed Helmuth Rilling with its modern connection to a Baroque idea.

"It was the continuo," the Festival's artistic director recalled. "Cello, bass, harpsichord organ. Continuo means Baroque music. Mozart does not have it, Beethoven does not have it, Brahms does not have it. But Golijov had the genius to create continuo with guitars. He transcribed this element from the Baroque age to our times."

For Oceana, which used as its texts the poetry of Pablo Neruda, Golijov was paired with Venezuelan choral conductor Maria Guinand. Guinand had previously worked with Rilling as a student in the Festival's master class and in Bach academies in Caracas.

Guinand conducted her own Schola Cantorum choir for the premiere of Oceana, with Brazilian pop singer Luciana Souza, the New World Guitar Trio, and a small orchestra.

"The effect was mesmerizing," wrote critic David Stabler in the Oregonian. "Guinand kept the disparate forces and the Bach-inspired counterpoint together, as the music rose in waves."

Riding the rising tide of Oceana, Rilling selected Golijov and Guinand to collaborate in the Passion 2000 project in Stuttgart. Golijov and fellow composers Tan Dun, Wolfgang Rihm, and Sofia Gubaidalina were each commissioned to write a passion for the 250th anniversary of Bach's death.

The usually reserved German audience met the Stuttgart premiere of Golijov's La Pasión with pandemonium. "Our hall seats about 2,000, and it was packed twice, two evenings," said Rilling. "And for both nights, half an hour after the concert, people were still in that hall, screaming."

The Festival hopes to replicate that ovation at La Pasión's northwest U.S. premiere June 23-24. Most of the original cast comes to Eugene, including conductor Guinand and her 40-voice Schola Cantorum group; Souza, as vocal soloist; an ensemble of soloists, dancers, and percussionists; and the brassy Orquesta la Pasión. Golijov will be in the audience and a participant in the Composers Symposium at the University of Oregon School of Music.

Although the history of setting to music the story of Christ's last days goes back centuries, La Pasión has been described as modern, meaningful, and universal. Reflecting Golijov's background as an Argentine Jew living in Boston, it reconciles Christian, Jewish, and folkloric references. In its ever-shifting and constantly surprising mix of styles, even the roles of Peter, Jesus, and Judas are assumed by changing soloists, voices, and movements.

It is especially relevant in a time when the Hispanic population has emerged as the country's largest minority. Golijov draws on South American and Afro-Cuban forms including salsa, rumba, flamenco, and the tango of Astor Piazzola. He employs percussion, brass, and accordion and creates a sense of the street with dance and costumes.

With ritual, drama, and rhythms hot enough to dance to, La Pasión sparked fervor among critics. Wynne Delacoma of the Chicago Sun-Times called it "a passion resounding with Latin America's rambunctious vital 21st century voice," and Mark Swed in the Los Angeles Times saw in it "wonderful new opportunities for breaking down barriers between cultures."

Rilling is known for his mastery of Bach. Perhaps less well-known is his commitment to the future, demonstrated through efforts such as the Passion project and commissions of Krzysztof Penderecki and Arvo Part. He says Golijov's work is aligned with the Festival's mission because it looks at Bach's influence on modern composers. "It is important for us to express not only Bach's ideas," the conductor said, "but to express what the Passion story means for our time."

The Oregon Bach Festival is a program of the University of Oregon. Its performance of La Pasión según San Marcos is underwritten by grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Paul Allen Foundation, and the Hult Endowment Fund of the Oregon Community Foundation. KeyBank is the corporate sponsor.

Tickets for La Pasión go on sale March 22. For more, see the complete 2005 schedule page on oregonbachfestival.com.