Monday, March 13, 2006

The Synergy of Music and Words

The impetus for the European vacation taking place in late winter was, as I said, to attend AC’s international debut, singing the soprano part in Osvaldo Golijov’s La Pasión según San Marcos. AC had given me a CD of the piece so that I could be familiar with it; Golijov is a modern composer, and while that doesn’t mean atonal (far from it), it also patently doesn’t mean Beethoven. I listened to the piece in the car several times, and loved it. It’s tribal, wistful, anguished, joyful. But it’s in Spanish, so aside from an occasional word or two, I really didn’t have any idea where I was in the story.

Any Passion, of course, is telling the story of Christ’s last days and his annunciation. It’s a familiar story of despair and betrayal as well as hope and love, and it’s a story that has been set to music for centuries. The fact that Golijov is Jewish may make it seem as though he were not an appropriate choice to tell this very Christian story, but he recognizes the universals of humanity and emotion, and that’s what is needed.

The London performance was the first performance of any passion I’ve seen with supratitles, which told the story in English while the chorus and soloists sang in Spanish. I found myself almost awed by the increased power of the music, once I knew what specifically was being sung. Peter’s song (sung by AC), when he realizes that he has, in fact, denied Jesus thrice before the cock crowed twice, went from a merely beautiful and sad air to a heart-wrenching lament about personal weakness and humiliation, disbelief, and a dawning, horrible understanding that he’d just left someone he loved to die alone—indeed, perhaps killed him. And now Peter is going to live, still, tortured by this knowledge of himself, as well as missing his friend.

The other section that made a deep impression on me was the choral piece telling of Christ’s walk to Golgotha, carrying his cross. When listening to the CD in the car, I dimly assumed that the fierce joy and frenetic rhythm of this piece was responding to Jesus having risen; after all, that’s a happy time, right? But no. This particular piece, full of fast dance rhythms and exultant chords, tells the story of the impending crucifixion. How? Why this? Part way through the song, I started to understand. This cheering, jeering, frenzied mob, infected by its own excitement, was going to see a public execution of a very controversial figure, and they were thrilled. They couldn’t wait! This was like a monster truck rally, a circus . . . or a public execution.

A part of the story I had never really paid much attention to—the people lining the road on the way up to the hill—was suddenly, chillingly clear. It’s a sad story—I had always assumed that, overall, even the jeerers were a little sad. But no, this music made it abundantly clear—on a visceral, horrified, almost cellular level, that they were very likely having a great time.

And therein lies the amazing alchemy of lyric and note.

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