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The most important day in the Christian calendar is approaching: Easter. It's the story of Jesus' last days and the Resurrection. And the story is resonating beyond the Christian church. The story of the Passion took on a new meaning for MacArthur-winning composer Osvaldo Golijov when he was asked to write a choral work based on one of the Gospels. Golijov is from Argentina, and he happens to be Jewish. The work premiered in 2000, but a recent performance at Carnegie added another layer of meaning. Students from all over New York City brought their own experiences and feelings to Golijov's passion of St. Mark. NPR's Anastasia Tsioulcas has more.

ANASTASIA TSIOULCAS, BYLINE: For Osvaldo Golijov, it was a challenge. The Passion was a story he only knew from a distance while growing up in La Plata, Argentina.

OSVALDO GOLIJOV: To me, the paradox was to grow up very Jewish in what was an officially Catholic country at the time. I grew up with a thorough knowledge of the Old Testament but almost nothing, just hearsay, about the New Testament. And all my friends with whom I played soccer and went to school during the day, they were Christians. So, I was curious.

TSIOULCAS: So were some of the performers in the Carnegie production.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: One, two, three, and...

CHORUS: (Singing in foreign language)

TSIOULCAS: Shaniqua Jeffries is a 22-year-old alto and a devoted Christian. She wanted to know what it was like for Golijov, as a Jew, to be writing music about Jesus.

SHANIQUA JEFFRIES: I wondered whether or not he had questions about it as he was writing the piece like whether it questioned his beliefs, or did it not question his beliefs? Or did it add stuff? Like, I just wondered how it came about. I don't really know if he's been connected to it as spiritually a Christian believer would be.

CHORUS: (Singing in foreign language)

TSIOULCAS: Golijov says that as a Jew reading the Christian Bible, he found a transcendental message.

GOLIJOV: The two most important things I learned were the shifting of the paradigm toward love as the foundation of life and the transcending the fear of death.

TSIOULCAS: To help convey that, the composer incorporated some pretty lively music.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CHORUS: (Singing in foreign language)

ANDREW FARELLA: I never expected a Passion to have this funk and Spanish and everything inside it. And I'm a dancer as well, so the samba rhythms and the salsa rhythms, I never thought I would be able to sing them with an orchestra.

TSIOULCAS: That's Andrew Farella, a 16-year-old bass vocalist. He and his friend Jerry Ortiz, another 16-year-old bass, like the rest of the choir, were recruited from schools all over New York City. They say they're thrilled to hear all these different kinds of music within Golijov's work - ones they know well from their own lives.

JERRY ORTIZ: Everything that's in here is, like, based on my culture, my background. I'm Dominican and Puerto Rican. So, I know I could feel the music when we sing it. I was kind of surprised to hear African, also Indian stuff from my country. But he talked about how in Latin America we come from three places. There's our white side, there's our Native American side and there's our African side. And that's basically what La Pasion is coming from those three to combine one, the Holy Trinity.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CHORUS: (Singing in foreign language)

TSIOULCAS: Composer Osvaldo Golijov says evoking that mix was essential to his vision of the Passion. And it's not just in the music. He wanted the language he used to reflect the multiracial and multicultural reality of Latin America.

GOLIJOV: To me, it was very important to bring all the African, Yoruba tradition that merged with both the Spanish and the Portuguese colonizing traditions to create this metamorphosis of the Passion that has happened in Latin America.

TSIOULCAS: He also incorporated his Jewish faith and Jewish texts into this most Christian of stories.

GOLIJOV: For me, even if I remain Jewish and do not believe in the physical resurrection of Jesus, I believe that his message of love and of life triumphing over death had to finish the Passion. Therefore, I wrote for the end the kaddish, which is the prayer for the dead that you sing at the grave of your beloved ones. The beauty of that prayer is that it does not mention the word death. It is a hymn to life, to God, even to silence beyond words and beyond music.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CHORUS: (Singing in foreign language)

TSIOULCAS: It's a message he hopes can explore the many layers of meaning in this story, for many different kinds of people. Anastasia Tsioulcas, NPR News, New York.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CHORUS: (Singing in foreign language)

TSIOULCAS: And you can hear the full Carnegie Hall performance of Golijov's "Passion" at nprmusic.org. This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin.

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