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Honoring Bach With New Passions

Four new pieces earned raves in Europe. Will they make it to Los Angeles?


In 1971, Leonard Bernstein, a Jew, wrote a Catholic mass of sorts. An audacious theatrical interpretation of the liturgy that was commissioned in memory of JFK to open the Kennedy Center in Washington, "Mass" is an impudent stylistic brew that combines rock, 12-tone music and Broadway. At its center is a hippie celebrant who confronts God and society; on its edges are provocative excursions into Buddhism and Judaism. The Kennedys were aghast; Nixon, who was president at the time, stayed home.

But to the amazement of those of us who were initially appalled by it, "Mass" has not only endured but proven to be a postmodern masterpiece of eclectic ecumenicalism. And now it stands as the obvious spiritual precursor of the most remarkable musical project themed around the millennium--"Passion 2000."

To honor the coincidence of the year 2000 with the 250th anniversary of Bach's death, the International Bach Academy--a center for Bach studies and performance in Stuttgart, Germany, headed by a former Bernstein pupil, Helmuth Rilling--has commissioned four new passions from composers representing four corners of the world. Bach wrote passions as musical reflections of the last days of Christ, intended for solemn performance on Good Friday, based on the testaments of the evangelists, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Only his "St. Matthew" and "St. John" passions have survived, but the former is a strong candidate for the most profound piece of Western music ever written. The "St. John" passion, though currently mired in controversy because it contains an anti-Semitic line of biblical text, is the most potently dramatic of Bach's works.

The new passions, which had their premieres between Aug. 28 and Sept. 8, are Wolfgang Rihm's "Deus Passus" (after Luke), Sophia Gubaidulina's "Johannes Passion," Osvaldo Golijov's "Las Pasion Sugun San Marco" and Tan Dun's "Water Passion after St. Matthew." The composers--German, Russian, Argentine and Chinese--are all distant, in one way or another, from Bach's culture, music and his steadfast Lutheranism. Rihm, a German modernist, had, until now, avoided sacred music. Gubaidulina's music exudes the exotic mystical spirituality of the Russian Orthodox Church. Golijov is a Latin Jew of Russian and Romanian heritage who now lives in Boston and has a penchant for klezmer and popular culture. Tan, who grew up oblivious to the Judeo-Christian traditions in Maoist China, has transplanted himself to the experimental world of downtown New York.

Each of the Four a Major Success

These new passions are all stirring, major works, each lasting around 90 minutes and each a major success. The Golijov, which surges with Latin rhythms and includes magnificent Cuban, Brazilian and Venezuelan performers, will likely become popular. The celebrated Russian conductor Valery Gergiev recently hailed the Gubaidulina passion as her greatest work. The Tan passion, more effectively than anything I have ever heard, reveals music's underlying universality as it irresistibly combines seemingly unrelated musical worlds. The more reflective Rihm passion was enthusiastically called by the head of the regional government of Baden-Wurtemberg, of which Stuttgart is the capital, "a modern-day proclamation of the Christian message of salvation."

Actually, that German politician, Edwin Teufel, seems to have completely overlooked the work's unsettling irresolution. "Deus Passus" is a somber reflection of ongoing postwar German angst. Using poetry by Paul Celan added as commentary to the German biblical text, Rihm seems--in mournful music for five vocal soloists, orchestra and chorus--to equate Christ's persecution with issues of 20th century slaughter--blood is a Celan leitmotif. Yet the musical style, though coolly abstract, is so confident and the performance led by Rilling from memory was so compelling that Teufel's response was not surprising.

Like Rihm, Gubaidulina--whose "Johannes Passion" was magnificently performed by the orchestra, chorus and soloists from the Maryinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg, along with the St. Petersburg Chamber Choir, all conducted by Gergiev--did not seek an easy path to salvation. Her "John," instead, is a passion to strike terror into a listener, and implied a terrible warning for Russia. Passages of the gospel in Russian are intercut with those from the Book of Revelations. A deep bass, Genady Bezzubenkov, sang the majority of the text (in none of the passions are singers consistently assigned individual roles) and brought to it the dark, powerful presence we tend to associate with the czars in Russian opera. The work has, in instruments and voices (and especially percussion), a shimmering, ringing, arresting sound that ultimately overwhelms, with climaxes that linger forever and a day. The apocalypse appears to be just around the corner.

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