I heard Osvaldo Golijov’s monumental La Pasión según San Marcos in Rome last week. The work, commissioned in 2000 by Helmuth Rilling to commemorate the 250th anniversary of J.S. Bach’s death, featured many—most, really—of the performers from the original premiere. Over the last eight years and dozens of performances around the world, the touring choir and soloists have reached a point that any composer would envy—they have internalized the music, singing and playing most of it by memory.
I was struck by the long, fruitful partnerships that Golijov creates with performers. Meeting him at Tanglewood several years ago as he was composing Ainadamar, I noticed how he was completely immersed in learning complex flamenco clapping rhythms from a few Argentine dancers who had come to visit. These rhythms would later appear, transformed, in his opera. A few years later, as part of Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road Project, I saw him listening silently, transfixed, as guest musicians from China, India, and Iran demonstrated their unique instruments. One could practically see the cogs turning in his head, dreaming of new possibilities.
The 90-minute long Pasión relies on a nucleus of superb Latin American singers, guitarists, and percussionists who have advised, assisted, even co-composed the piece. I find Osvaldo’s compositional process inspiring though problematic at times. In a way, he is simply following in the grand ole tradition of performer/composer partnerships—Brahms/Joachim, Prokofiev/Richter, Berio/Berberian. Golijov is certainly not afraid of learning from musicians, and his thirst for knowledge is palpable. It sounds so obvious when I write it, but the concept of humbly admitting ignorance is easier said than done. Many composers don’t wish to admit their lack of familiarity with an instrument and are afraid of asking. But my only reservation to his process comes when considering the fine line one crosses in such a close collaboration—an openness that may mean compromising a single voice or vision for a work.