Of all the myriad names and composers reeled off by Alex Ross in the penultimate chapter of ‘The Rest is Noise’ – why did I pursue this one: Osvaldo Golijov’s La Pasión según San Marcos.

Maybe something about the promised pulse of Latin America; and my happy memories of happy times spent there in the 1990s.

That’s life though – serendipity and random connections; Argentinian culture came up in conversation later in the same week I downloaded it.

But there is also a thing I read a few years back about ‘taking action on you ideas’. Which ain’t half a good piece of advice when it comes to ‘relevant complexity’.

Most good things start either as hard, mysterious or uncertain in their prospects of adding to your joy in life. It’s in the trying you find out…

Here’s some of what the cover notes of La Pasión say about it:

The second half of the 20th century saw a revival in musical settings of Christ’s Passion, including two successful Broadway musicals that drew on the story: Stephen Schwartz’s Godspell and Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Jesus Christ Superstar.

In 2000, one of the most original initiatives to celebrate the 250th anniversary of Bach’s death was Passion 2000, devised by Helmuth Rilling and the Internationale Bachakademie of Stuttgart. Four new works were commissioned for the project, including Osvaldo Golijov’s La Pasión según San Marcos.

Golijov’s is the one that made the most immediate impact. When María Guinand – to whom La Pasión is dedicated – conducted the world premiere in Stuttgart on 5 September 2000, it was greeted with a 20-minute ovation (prompting the critic of the Stuttgarter Nachrichten to ask: “Is Madonna in the house? Or at least Michael Jackson?”).

Stylistically, Golijov’s La Pasión is a dazzling mix of serious and popular styles. The result is a work of tremendous communicative power. Golijov has said that he aimed to write a Passion “as it’s lived in Latin America” with “a very different Jesus from the European Jesus that we’re used to”.

To underline this, he used a popular translation of the story, and even rhythmicized some of the text so that the whole piece would be “driven by rhythm”.

While most of La Pasión is sung in Spanish, Golijov also uses different languages as a dramatic device: Latin and Aramaic for the Lamentations of Jeremiah and Kaddish at the close, and Galician (a poem by Rosalia de Castro) to express Peter’s despair.

Golijov’s score is among the most vibrant and inventive of all 20th-century Passion settings. There’s something wonderfully appealing in his tapestry of South American and Latin music, from Cuba, Brazil, Argentina, Mexico and beyond – and in that sense La Pasión’s energetic originality is the consequence of its assimilation of such a range of styles.

The scoring of La Pasión reflects its cross-cultural inspiration, and the energizing power of rhythm: vocal soloists, a chorus of “at least 60 singers”, one capoeira dancer, one AfroCuban dancer and an instrumentation dominated by percussion, including the Brazilian berimbau (that rare hybrid, a one-string percussion instrument), accordion, guitar, piano, solo double bass, trumpets, trombones and strings.

La Pasión has some unusual structural features too. Where we might expect chorales and clearly defined solo roles, Golijov comes up with new and convincing alternatives. The roles of Christ and the Evangelist (Mark) are distributed among the performers rather than given to specific soloists – thus sharing both the suffering and responsibility – and locating the work within what Golijov calls “the Latin American experience”. This is a Passion with a spirit and a sound like no other.

It sure is.

Golijov: La Pasión según San Marcos (20C series)

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