Saturday, February 09, 2008

Philip Glass in Miami - Part 1

Philip Glass came back to town this week, this time to the Gusman concert hall at the University of Miami's Frost School of Music. The UM makes a wide range of performances available to the community at low cost--even free, as in this case. And it often goes all out, as it did on Wednesday evening, with a full chorus, multiple pianos, and a couple of dozen soloists pulled from faculty, students, alumni, and the Florida Grand Opera.

As you can tell, the stage was full, though the chorus had the role of privileged audience until they had their chance to chime in near the end. And it's not often you see three grand pianos sharing the same real estate. The mighty keyboards carried most of the load on the instrumental side, sparingly augmented by a cello, celesta, flute, and a couple of percussionists. (Except for the overture to Les Enfants Terribles, which was originally scored for three pianos, they were taking the place of the rest of the orchestra.)

The subject of the evening was opera excerpts, and Glass himself appeared only as commentator and fellow spectator. Responding to questions posed by conductor Alan Johnson, Glass gave us "a few minute summary" of what should have been a two-day reply as to what draws him to the form of the opera, what its role in contemporary culture is, and if in fact what he writes is really opera.

One item that emerged from this was that when he first produced Einstein on the Beach, he did not think of it as an opera, but the scale of the work was such that there was only room to do it in an opera house. Then, when some critics told him it was not opera, he found the statement "so provocative" that he had to insist that it certainly was an opera, and why did they think it wasn't?

I guess you could say the rest was history, as Glass followed up with many other works, the minds of critics changed, and public acceptance reached amazing heights. If there is any doubt that Glass has created a market for himself, you only have to try to think of a few other so-called "serious" or "classical" contemporary composers who are household names. Who would they be? Maybe Michael Nyman, who could be considered in the same school, and who, like Glass, has also staked his claim to film scores with works like The Piano. Then ... who else? Steve Reich? Gabriel Byrne? Alas, the rest are known only to academe, and those few oddballs willing to listen to some really weird stuff.

Much as jazz lost its popular audience when it evolved from big dance bands through bebop and into things that only a musician could love, so contemporary "classical" music fell from popular vogue as it became ever more demanding on its listeners. Since Gershwin (now, according to Glass, acknowledged to have written the first American opera in Porgy and Bess), who has there been that the mass of people would pay to hear? Copland of course. But since Bernstein ...? And please, let's not even mention what's happening on Broadway. Audiences going to the symphony expect to hear nothing dating from later than the early years of the 20th century. That's a long dry spell.

Into this drought came the unexpected stream of Glass's new form of music, an amalgam of world rhythms, pop percussion, hypnotic repetition, and classic melodic and harmonic invention. He has managed to forge a music at once accessible to a large audience, yet rewarding to the discerning ear.

Glass has sometimes been called, and criticized as, a "minimalist." But I think such a term begs the issue. Eric Satie rightfully could be considered a minimalist for focusing his attention on microcosmic piano works during the heyday of Wagnerian extravaganzas. But if Satie had extrapolated what he was doing until it lasted hours instead of seconds, layered it to include full orchestras and choruses, and added words and meaning on top of the mix, even dance, would it still have been minimal?

Glass has also been accused of repeating himself, but I think this too is a failure of the listener's imagination. Carmen was said to be lacking in melody when it debuted, because its novel rhythms were all the critics could hear. Glass is giving us a similar exposure to unusual metric elements, and making them accessible through repetition and deceptively simple melodic content. A listener will find himself noticing motifs he has heard in other works by the composer, and may conclude he is just doing the same thing over again. But these ingredients are only parts of the language that Glass has invented for himself and continually expanded. They are like the familiar cadences of Bach or Handel, or the orchestrations of Beethoven, by which fingerprints we can identify the composers from their works. But no one now says, "there goes Bach again, with the same old counterpoint." And who wouldn't want to hear a Symphony Number 10 from Ludwig?

And so, let the music play. According to my notes, here are some of the striking moments:

  • Three grands, six hands. Quite something when they're all going at once, and when they play different times against each other. Two against three is pretty basic in this context. Elsewhere I counted loops of five, seven, and nine. I'm sure there were others.

  • Glass uses the piano as a percussion and rhythm instrument to good effect. But there was another interesting passage where single long held notes from the piano gave an underpinning to the tinkling of the celesta. Nice.

  • Never call this music emotionless--the excerpt from The Fall of the House of Usher had all the ominous qualities that could be desired. And a haunting female ghost voice that convinced me there was a theremin in the room.

  • In two selections the flute was called on to double with the woman singing, providing a sort of gloss or overtone to the human sound. This almost seemed to flaunt the traditional arrangement where a flute performs obbligato to the soprano's aria. Not to say the singers didn't have plenty of room to show off--what would opera be without providing a showcase for the diva?

  • Both percussion and chorus were denied participation until the penultimate number from Akhnaten. With a pair of tom-toms on either side of the stage providing the jungle beat, the chorus chanting in staccato and varying rhythms, and those pianos all working again, it was enough to raise the roof--and made the abrupt silence at the end deafening.
All of this made the last piece seem like a gentle encore. It was a six-part madrigal setting of "Father Death Blues" by Allen Ginsberg, part of Glass's Hydrogen Jukebox. (Here's a video of Ginsberg singing it.) More than anything else this reminded me of those quiet hymns that Patti Smith, something of a Ginsberg protege herself, sometimes includes on her albums.

Leonard Bernstein once opined that all he wanted to be able to do in a Broadway musical was to come up with a tune that the audience could sing on the way out. Well, I have to say, as I made my way out to the parking lot, I found myself singing this one.
[Part 2 next week.]

For an interactive exploration of Philip Glass's music you can do no better than his own website, which offers the IBM Glass Engine. Turn on and tune in.

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