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Expat Venezuelan singers honor loved ones in MN Orchestra's multicultural masterpiece

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MN Chorale, Border CrosSing, alumni of the Schola Cantorum de Venezuela
Members of the Minnesota Chorale and Border CrosSing, and alumni of the Schola Cantorum de Venezuela rehearse "La Pasión según San Marcos,” which will round out the 2019 Sommerfest program by the Minnesota Orchestra.
Euan Kerr | MPR News

Jessica Colmenares had hoped her mother could travel from Caracas, Venezuela, to hear her sing in the Minnesota Orchestra’s production of Osvaldo Golijov's "La Pasión según San Marcos (the Passion According to St. Mark )” this weekend. After all, Colmenares was in the audience when her mother sang in the premiere 19 years ago in Germany. 

But the political and economic turmoil in Venezuela prevented the reunion from happening.

Venezuelan singer Jessica Colmenares
Venezuelan singer Jessica Colmenares
Euan Kerr | MPR News

"I haven't seen her for four years," said Colmenares, who now lives in Houston, Texas. "I was pretty sad. I am pretty sad yet."

The crisis in Venezuela also prevented celebrated choral conductor María Guinand from bringing members of La Schola Cantorum de Venezuela to perform. Instead, Guinand will conduct a choir that includes about 41 local singers, plus Colmenares and eight other former members of La Schola who now live in the United States. 

The extraordinary multicultural presentation of the Passion According to St. Mark wraps up the Minnesota Orchestra's Sommerfest this weekend. The concerts will feature a choir singing in Spanish, a huge percussion section and a troupe of dancers as well as the orchestra. 

Guinand has led more than 50 productions of Golijov’s piece but said the work about to fill Orchestra Hall in Minneapolis “is an example for the world.” 

“I mean, we could be the United Nations here,” she said, laughing.

María Guinaud leads the Schola Cantorum de Venezuela.
María Guinaud leads the Schola Cantorum de Venezuela.
Euan Kerr | MPR News

Guinand made it here, but it was clear many of her current La Schola members would not. Several embassies, including the U.S. Embassy, pulled out of Venezuela. Guinand said that meant going to Bogotá, Colombia, for at least a week to get a U.S. visa. And she said many younger choir members had no travel documents at all.

"To get a passport today in Venezuela is nearly impossible because everything is, like, locked," she said. "So, we have too many odds."

The story of "La Pasión según San Marcos” goes back 20 years.  Golijov, an Argentine composer, received a commission to celebrate the 250th anniversary of Johann Sebastian Bach’s death by writing a piece on the Gospel According to Mark, which describes the ministry of Jesus, his last supper, death and burial.  

"He initially turned down that commission because of the whole idea of, 'Well, how do I write the story of the Passion, I guess, from my perspective?" said Ahmed Anzaldúa, whose Border CrosSing choir is also participating in the production.

As an Egyptian-Mexican who grew up in a Muslim household in Mexico City, Anzaldúa knows a little about cultural complexity. Golijov is Jewish, the son of Eastern European immigrants to Argentina. Anzaldúa said Golijov thought about it and came up with a way to tell the story. 

Ahmed Anzaldúa warms up the choir at a rehearsal.
Ahmed Anzaldúa warms up the choir at a rehearsal of "La Pasión según San Marcos” at Westminster Presbyterian Church in Minneapolis.
Euan Kerr | MPR News

"He takes the story of the Passion and uses it as a metaphor for the history of Latin America, and the figure of Christ in this piece as representative of oppressed people, of suffering," Anzaldúa said. 

Golijov set it all to the musical styles of Central and South America, as well as Spain.  He used salsas and tangos as well as Gregorian chant.

When the piece premiered in Germany in 2000, the standing ovation lasted 30 minutes, Anzaldúa said.  

"Many would consider this one of the great masterworks of the 21st century, and it's a piece that has only been done by one ensemble," he said. That ensemble is Guinand's La Schola Cantorum de Venezuela. 

This weekend’s performance will be a once-in-a-lifetime experience, Anzaldúa said. 

"I'd just prepare to have your mind blown," he said.