Search the Archive:

Back to the Weekly Home Page


Palo Alto Online

Publication Date: Friday, October 18, 2002

The passion of Osvaldo Golijov The passion of Osvaldo Golijov (October 18, 2002)

Discover how an Argentinean Jewish composer reinterpreted the last days of Jesus Christ

Robyn Israel

A rgentine composer Osvaldo Golijov had to overcome three years of fear in order to write one of his most monumental works to date, "La Pasion Segun San Marcos."

The fear was natural, given the scope of the commission: a Passion piece that would interpret the gospel according to St. Mark, but be told from a modern, Latin American perspective. If that alone weren't enough to challenge Golijov, there was also the issue of his Judaism, a fact that made him do a double-take when he first received the assignment six years ago from Helmuth Rilling, a conductor and founder of the International Bach Academy in Stuttgart.

"It was a double fear!" Golijov said in a recent phone interview from his Newton, Mass. home.

But Rilling was eager to put a modern spin on Johann Sebastian Bach's traditional Passions. So to commemorate the 250th anniversary of Bach's death, Rilling commissioned four Passions: a German passion from Wolfgang Rihm, a Chinese-American passion from Tan Dun and a Russian passion from Sophia Gubaidulina. Based upon one of the four gospel texts, the works were premiered at the Passion 2000 Festival in Stuttgart.

Rilling felt certain that Golijov was the right person to compose a Latin-American passion.

"He didn't impose any orthodox view of the story on me," Golijov said. "He said, 'Do it the way you feel it should be done. I want your passion to reflect Latin-American Christianity.'"

Golijov took to the task at hand and, within a year's time (1999-2000), succeeded in creating an electrifying piece that has drawn rave reviews all over the world. The Northern California premiere of "La Pasion Segun San Marcos" is set to take place on Sunday at Stanford University's Memorial Auditorium. Presented by Stanford Lively Arts, the performance will be conducted by Caracas native Maria Guinand and will feature La Schola Cantorum de Caracas and the Orquestra La Pasion, the latter a select group of musicians who spent a year learning and rehearsing the work.

All told, "La Pasion" will showcase a 75-member ensemble of singers, dancers and musicians who bring a Latin flavor and fire to the mix. The string section will be comprised of the Stanford Chamber Strings, under the direction of the St. Lawrence String Quartet, Stanford's ensemble-in-residence. Current Stanford musical students and recent alumni will also join forces to bring Golijov's work of genius to life in an exclusive Bay Area engegement.

For Stanford Lively Arts, the production stands apart as one of the new season's showcase events, a perfect illustration of the artistry, emotion, creativity and energy the organization strives to present throughout the year, according to Lois Wagner, executive director of Stanford Lively Arts.

Unlike European interpretations, "La Pasion" uses authentic Latin-American instruments, such as the berimbau, tres and batu drums, as well as special vocal techniques indigenous to the region. Consistent with the culture, heavy emphasis is placed on voices and percussion, rather than strings. And Latin rhythms come alive onstage in the form of mambo, sambo and flamenco dancing.

Set in Spanish, the work is an exuberant departure from Bach's traditional passions, presenting Jerusalem with the vibe of a Latin street festival, not to mention a black Jesus. And three different representations are used for the voice of Jesus: a male soloist, a female soloist and, most of the time, the choir, which to Golijov represents the people, transformed into a collective spirit.

"Jesus is the people," he said emphatically. "The governments are full of crap -- bloodshed and dictatorships from the time of the conquerors. What's amazing about Latin America is the faith of the people. Despite tragedies, they keep their faith."

For his Passion piece, Golijov wanted to honor the women of Argentina, who, during the '70s, would regularly protest the country's dictatorship on the Plaza de Mayo in Buenos Aires. Wearing white handkerchiefs, this small group of mothers would walk in circles on the plaza, grieving over their murdered children. Within a year, many more women joined them in protest.

"I feel if Jesus is God, then God is also a woman," Golijov said. "It's an homage to those women who were so brave when the men were cowards."

Golijov's bold decision to have a woman speak Jesus' words has not gone unchallenged. "First Things American," a religious magazine, gave "La Pasion" a venomous review, he said. Another critic said Golijov had managed to diminish the Jewish guilt over Jesus' death.

"It was a real challenge," said Golijov, who was born in La Plata (50 kilometers from Buenos Aires) and grew up in an Eastern European Jewish household. "I was always very Jewish, but I felt to write a piece like that and to live with it, I really had to open myself to what might happen. In Argentina, there's an endemic Anti-Semitism. But I have to realize that's just a small part of Christianity."

As it turns out, the criticism has been minor, compared to the overwhelmingly positive response "La Pasion" has received worldwide. The piece was also nominated for a 2002 Latin Grammy Award.

What largely helped Golijov overcome his demons was a Rembrandt painting that used to hang in his great grandmother's home. Entitled "Jeremiah Lamenting the Fall of Jerusalem," Golijov called it the greatest Jewish picture ever -- an even greater feat considering the Dutch painter was a Gentile.

"I think he achieved what no painter ever achieved," Golijov said. "He goes deeper into the Jewish soul than (Marc) Chagall."

Like Rembrandt, who lived next to the Jewish community, Golijoz resided amongst his Catholics neighbors, and felt he could, as an outsider, capture the essence of their religion.

"My feeling was, look, sometimes it takes a stranger to reveal in your culture what your culture doesn't see. That gave me courage. Even if five minutes of my 'Pasion' has the truth about Latin American Christianity -- as much as Rembrandt had in his paintings of the Jews -- then my task will be justified."

Asked which portion of the "Pasion" he feels best captures that truth, Golijov replied "The Agony of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane," which takes place two-thirds of the way through the 110-minute spectacle. The scene details Jesus, with his three apostles, going to the garden, where he prays three times and eventually overcomes his fear of dying.

"It's just a beautiful melody, like a Brazilian nocturnal moon. It is very simple, but it has a lot of symbolism. That's where people cry a lot. Especially the choir, the first time, they were all in tears. That's when I felt I did my job."

Born to a piano teacher mother and a physician father, Golijov was exposed to chamber classical music, Jewish liturgical and klezmer music and the new tango of Astor Piazzolla. He moved to Jerusalem in 1983, where he immersed himself in the city's different musical traditions. He came to the United States in 1986, where he received his Ph.D. from the University of Pennsylvania. He also studied at Tanglewood.

Golijov's mission to meaningfully integrate different musical sources has resulted in collaborations with artists and conductors from around the world, including the Cleveland and St. Lawrence String Quartets, clarinetist David Krakauer and the gypsy band Taraf de Haidouks, which resulted in the soundtrack for the film "The Man Who Cried," starring Johnny Depp and Cate Blanchett.

He has collaborated with the Kronos Quartet on nearly 30 works, and his arrangements can be heard on the quartet's newest CD, "Nuevo." Golijov currently teaches at the Tanglewood Music Center and at the College of the Holy Cross.

To conclude "La Pasion," Golijov stayed true to the original Passion of St. Mark, in which Jesus is not resurrected.

"I don't believe in resurrection, and I don't believe Jesus was God. But I think he was touched by the divine and that he was closer (to God) than anyone else in Western culture. ...And I don't think his story ends with his death, because it's still resonating 2,000 years later."

To reconcile his beliefs, Golijov chose to conclude his Pasion" with the soulful Kaddish, the traditional Jewish prayer sung to honor dead. Despite its purpose, the Kaddish fails to mention death and instead talks only of life. For that reason, it seemed a fitting conclusion to Golijov.

"The idea is that even in the moment of deepest doubts about life, the Jewish tradition opens your eyes to the beauty of life and the transcendence of life over death. I think it's an amazing prayer, and it conveys my feelings at the end of the piece. It's a sublimated idea of the resurrection."

What: "La Pasion Segun San Marcos," composed by Osvaldo Golijov. Presented by Stanford Lively Arts, the performance will be conducted by Maria Guinand and will feature La Schola Cantorum de Caracas and the Orquestra La Pasion. The string section will be comprised of the Stanford Chamber Strings, under the direction of the St. Lawrence String Quartet, Stanford's ensemble-in-residence. Current Stanford musical students and recent alumni will also perform.

Where: Stanford University's Memorial Auditorium

When: Sunday at 8 p.m.

Cost: Tickets are $50/$46/$40 for adults; half-price for children under 15; and discounts are available for students. For ticketd and more information, contact the Stanford Ticket Office at Tresidder Memorial Union or call (650) 725-2787 or visit

Info: Visit


Copyright © 2002 Embarcadero Publishing Company. All rights reserved.
Reproduction or online links to anything other than the home page
without permission is strictly prohibited.