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Golijov’s cakewalk
Pasión at the BSO; Les Arts Florissants; Isaiah Jackson; Borromeo


The much-hyped US premiere of Osvaldo Golijov’s La Pasión según San Marcos (“The Passion According to St. Mark”) included some elements rarely seen on the Symphony Hall stage, especially at a Boston Symphony Orchestra concert: Easter pageant, Passion play, Brazilian capoeira, and a chorus that looked as if it had been choreographed to back up James Brown. This 90-minute work by the Argentinian Jewish composer who now lives in Newton brought to Boston most of the sensational performers who participated in the world premiere at Stuttgart last fall: the Schola Cantorum de Caracas, the searing Brazilian vocalist Luciana Souza (who used to teach at Berkelee College of Music and is the composer/performer of the richly bluesy cycle Poems of Elizabeth Bishop), the Afro-Cuban dancer and vocalist Reynaldo González Fernández and Afro-Brazilian percussionist/capoeira dancer Deraldo Ferreira, and members of the Orquesta la Pasión with their extraordinary folk instruments (guitar, accordion, berimbau, cajón).

They were impressively coordinated here by conductor Robert Spano with members of the BSO (a little out of their element — and following an uncoordinated performance of Bach’s D-minor Concerto with pianist Peter Serkin), and the lovely young American soprano Elizabeth Keusch (just completing her degree at the New England Conservatory but already out on the major circuit). The audience greeted their efforts with roaring approval. And the BSO deserves applause for going out on this unusual limb.

Golijov’s music fuses familiar idioms: Latin-American folk music, mariachi, bossa nova, flamenco, mambo, disco salsa, maybe even lambada. The blaring Tijuana brasses sounded like Herb Alpert — I kept expecting the players to stop suddenly and shout, “Tequila!” It ends with the Kaddish, the Jewish prayer for the dead. What was startling was that Golijov used this music to tell the Passion story. (Or is it the story of Che Guevara? Golijov says he wanted to “relate the Passion to icons of the history of Latin America.”) What was disappointing was that, driving and catchy as much of it may have been, and haunting as some of it was, only rarely did it seem to transform the clichés into something entirely new or profound. There were the extroverted brasses, the predictable syncopations, the keening or guttural lamentations of Latin-American torch songs. Even the long, slow cantilenas floated above predictable pounding, pulsating rhythms. The overriding musical language is a phenomenally sophisticated Latin pop. La Pasión según San Marco is more knowing, more skillfully orchestrated, than, say, Jesus Christ Superstar, Black Orpheus, or the Missa Luba, but it’s probably less original.

Golijov, of course, had Bach’s Passions in the back of his mind (hence the Bach concerto on the program). But what makes Bach more consistently and deeply engaging is the immediacy, the specificity, of his musical response to the narrative. Golijov “universalizes” the Passion by constantly shifting voices. Jesus might be a solo singer, or a trio, or the full chorus. Often it’s hard to tell who’s singing which role. Entire sections establish a single mood, with what on first hearing had very little internal emotional flexibility. Long stretches seemed like very long stretches. And the staging — cramped on the Symphony Hall stage — soon lost its novelty and seemed more self-consciously artsy than exuberantly spontaneous.

On opening night, I was decidedly in the minority. The performers moved and excited me more than the work itself. Keusch had two central, searching arias that I found beautiful though not memorable — a second or third hearing might improve my memory. I’m nervous about dismissing this ambitious work that obviously got a lot of people (including several critics) worked up. But it didn’t work for me.

THE FLEETBOSTON CELEBRITY SERIES joined the Boston Early Music Festival in presenting the world’s leading Baroque vocal and instrumental ensemble, Buffalo-born William Christie’s Les Arts Florissants, in another event with a musical-theater spin: a double bill of late-17th-century stage works, Marc-Antoine Charpentier’s Actæon and Henry Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas. The brilliantly calculated “semi-staging” by Vincent Broussard took full advantage of the small Sanders Theatre stage, on which beautiful and handsome singers (men in open-collared evening wear, women in gorgeous primary-colored Lacroix gowns) moved deliciously around and among the superb instrumentalists. The extraordinary theorbo player, Elizabeth Kenny, also got to wind her way among the singers when she played her guitar. Christie led from the harpsichord at the back, beaming like a modern Prospero supervising a masque.

The pastoral Actæon is about the mythical hunter who stumbles upon Diana and her nymphs bathing in a stream and is punished by being turned into a stag and torn to bits by his own hounds. The cast began in chairs with their backs to the audience, craning their necks to stare out at us. Gamine soprano Gaëlle Méchaly kicked off her shoes and did a buoyant, high-stepping dance around the stage. During Actæon’s moving lament, soprano Stéphanie D’Oustrac lowered a transparent blood-red veil over the hero’s head. In Dido, colorful little wire butterflies (one of them black) became poignant symbols for fleeting pleasure.

The performers’ theatricality and presence sometimes compensated for variable singing. Tenor Paul Agnew was an elegant and touching Actæon, baritone Nicolas Rivenq a dim bulb of an Aeneas. D’Oustrac was more effective vocally as Charpentier’s vengeful Juno than as Purcell’s hapless Dido (her great final lament was one of the few moments that left me cold), but I couldn’t take my eyes from her porcelain beauty.

Méchaly and Camilla Johansen were delightful as both French nymphs and British witches. Soprano Sophie Daneman was an irresistible Diana and a sweetly encouraging Belinda. Tiny tenor Laurent Slaars was a vigorously cockney hornpiping sailor, countertenor Michel Puissant a campy, swishy Sorceress who’d evidently been encouraged to sing with a smeary parody of tonality. You could take dictation from the perfect French in the Charpentier, but the English diction in the Purcell was careless, almost unprofessionally sloppy.

The elegant pairing of these works was not unpointed. Both depict the blind willfulness of fate (or “the gods”). The Purcell even includes a reference to Actæon. But more important, there was an underlying emotional, intellectual, and stylistic center, a heart beating under the dazzling veneer, that conveyed more about what this music is up to than I’ve yet to encounter from attempts to re-create a speciously “authentic” Baroque style.

ISAIAH JACKSON, the newly appointed music director of the Pro Arte Chamber Orchestra, has his own brand of theatricality. Artist-in-residence at the University of Dayton and music director of the Youngstown Symphony, he was also the first American music director of the Royal Ballet. His arms never rest, his hands never stop moving. His conducting style is like a mixture of cat’s cradle and The Dying Swan. He conducts every note — often at the expense of phrasing, of the long singing line of the music, yet he still doesn’t always achieve ensemble precision.

Jackson isn’t new to Boston. As a Harvard undergrad, he majored in Russian history and literature. He’s been an energetic guest of the Pro Arte and an enthusiastic musical advocate for the Pro Arte’s outreach program. This concert began with the Boston professional premiere of John Harbison’s brief, darkly beautiful, and mysterious Fantasia on a Ground (composed in 1992 for the student orchestra of Music School at Rivers, in Weston). Harbison calls it “a combination of law and fantasy.” “John,” Jackson exclaimed, holding a handmike while the piano being was moved onto the Sanders stage, “you not only gave us things to think about but something to enjoy intellectually as well.”

The rest of the program was devoted to Mozart — a rather affectless run-through of Mozart’s poignant last piano concerto, with Randall Hodgkinson dealing with a recalcitrant piano (then offering a delightful encore of the rondo finale of Mozart’s four-hand Sonata in F, K.497, which he played with a “volunteer from the audience” — Leslie Amper, who happens to be his wife), and Mozart’s next-to-last symphony, No. 39 in E-flat, which sprang to life only in the last movement.

First-concert nerves may have accounted for some of the shortcomings. The musicians obviously like working with Jackson or they wouldn’t have hired him. I hope he can relax into this new job and find the right combination of orchestral command and trust in the musicians. He needs not so much to curb his enthusiasm as to find a more effective focus for it.

“IT’S PREPOSTEROUS how good they are!” a musician commented during the intermission of the Borromeo String Quartet’s concert in the latest Celebrity Series Boston Marquee event. How good they are could be measured by the Borromeo’s phenomenal guest, pianist Leon Fleisher, who has over the past few years slowly resumed playing with both hands after his 20-year bout with a repetitive stress syndrome that put his right hand out of commission. The good news is that in the Brahms Piano Quintet he was thrilling, and so was the Borromeo. And there’s no bad news.

The Brahms, which closed the program, was beautifully conceived. It built to greater and greater climaxes, encompassing both intimacy and grandeur before the concluding whirlwind. Everyone played with the greatest delicacy of touch and feeling — even with the greatest vigor and on the largest scale. In Brahms, transition is at least as important as melody, and these players made you hang on every note. Fleisher’s miraculous tone, ever youthful, can be almost unearthly, glistening and dewy, or glitteringly worldly, strings of diamonds. And part of the miracle of this kaleidoscopic, mercurial masterwork was everyone’s unity of intention and spirit.

The program began with Beethoven’s F-minor Quartet, Opus 95, which is nicknamed the Serioso from its second-movement marking: Vivace ma serioso (“Lively but serious”) — a label that characterizes the Borromeo itself. Alternatively slashing and melting, the players captured both the nervy melodrama and the sweet, yearning nostalgia in this most intensely distilled of all Beethoven’s quartets.

In between came the Boston premiere of Steven Mackey’s Ars Moriendi (nine tableaux on the art of dying well). If Mackey’s note about his father’s death was more moving than the quartet, that’s partly a testimony to his literary eloquence. The nine short movements, beginning with repeated shallow breaths and ending with quietly touching allusions to “Danny Boy,” might not reach the depth and inventiveness of autobiographical quartets by Janác<t-83>?<t$>ek and Smetana, but the piece couldn’t have had more devoted or accomplished advocates than the Borromeos.