"A lot of people shared my excitement about Philip Glass’s and Christopher Hampton’s “Appomattox,” which, after seeing a second time on Friday night, I remain convinced is a superb opera."
"A lot of people shared my excitement about Philip Glass’s and Christopher Hampton’s “Appomattox,” which, after seeing a second time on Friday night, I remain convinced is a superb opera."
It was with much anticipation that I headed down to Washington DC this weekend to see the premiere of Appomattox 2.0 at the Washington National Opera and to echo Anne Midgette's review in the Washington Post, I harbor feelings of wanting to go see the piece again.
This is a big personal departure for me because the original version of Appomattox was, despite its noble intentions, never a fully realized piece and it didn't excite me very much. I recall the horrifically short period for which Glass had only a number of weeks to compose the whole opera. While the normal sequence for writing an opera for Glass includes years of gestation and idea-forming - with the actual composition of the music not necessarily taking a huge amount of time - Appomattox is a unique creation in many ways.
In the spring of 2007 I had a moment with Glass after he had just delivered the finished opera to the San Francisco Opera. At that time the composer expressed a wish for more time to work on it. Unlike any other opera, symphony, or chamber work Appomattox is significant for being the only piece I can think of which was subject to a wholesale overhaul from a composer who almost never looks backwards.
When I say revision, I mean revision. One of the many thoughts I had when leaving the opera on Saturday was that I wondered if the authors considered changing the name of the opera because it had changed so much. The old piece clearly had more to do now that the meeting between Grant and Lee at Appomattox court house at the end of the war than being a single word title which evoked the history of race in America.
I have known Appomattox 1.0 for 8 years now. I have come to know its drama, its pacing, and its music inside and out. Admittedly, Appomattox 1.0 does have issues. While I think it's a quality opera, it is somewhat misshapen with a fully realized first act and a somewhat convoluted second perhaps owing to the lack of time to compose it.
So right off the bat on Saturday night I noticed the opera no longer began with women's voices singing about the sorrows of war in a beginning, it had been very close to that of Satyagraha - voice and then slow minor key ostinati. Now the opera opens with a "colored" regiment singing the "Tenting On the Old Campground" traditional. Glass original choice of using women at the outset had to do with his remembrances of growing up during the Second World War - as was so often the case in war, with all the men gone the women are left holding the bag, left with the task of keeping the world functioning.
In this new opening with the soldiers, a number originally found in the middle of Act 1, we now start off with the opera's real primary subject - that of the legacy of race in America. From here we move then to the women singing a long sequence about how so much blood has been drained during these four years of the war and hopes that this will be the last time. This is followed with a new scene of Frederick Douglass meeting Lincoln after his second inauguration responding to Lincoln's question about his hopes for the country after the war ends. Douglass's hope is for the vote for all men of color (note, not women - that too, is later addressed in dialogue).
The opera builds, layer upon layer with history and issues which haunt us to this day. Each scene spawns more interesting episodes and rich theatrical material. If there was a danger inherent here it's that there are too many issues and too many characters to ever really address in one evening. The magic of the theater is that not only can the drama move forward without succumbing to the weight of it all, and only music has the real power to make it all propel forward without collapsing under its own weight. This, is perhaps the small miracle of Appomattox 2.0, that Glass's score draws us in - keeps us there - and carries us through these two gigantic conceptual acts. Inasmuch, this is perhaps one of Glass's most impressive scores.
In a way, Appomattox is an opera, in both its forms, about text. Christopher Hampton's masterfully crafted libretto is every bit as impressive as Glass's 500 pages of score. The task of the composer is to do something with all that text and scenario, to make sense of it, to imbue it with that magic. Act 1 is largely set in 1865 at the end of the American Civil War with the exception of the last scene of Act 1 in which T. Morris Chester - an African American journalist whom we first meet in a scene at Appomattox Courthouse when Chester is optimistic that now that the war is over, the fortunes and destinies of African Americans is going to change for the better. The last scene of Act 1 is a solo for Chester in which enough time has passed for us (and Chester) to understand that his optimism had been misplaced.
The great contrast in this new version is the entirety of Act 2. The older music which largely comprises Act 1 is much more dour, more black-and-white and antique sound than the vibrant color to be found in Act 2. It is true that a main characteristic of the whole new score is Glass highlighting melodic content within the orchestration. Over this past decade Glass has moved further into a Romantic musical language that relies more on orchestral variety and detail. This is on full display in Act 2 with more traditional tunes arranged by Glass which serve as signposts of American identity. Their presence ushers in moments of lighter musical language, 'good old tunes' which most American audience would know. I think their inclusion was a stroke of genius. Add to these Glass's own settings of well known texts and Glass's established and ubiquitous sound which nowadays forms a part of a universal musical vernacular and the whole tapestry of Appomattox begins to feel very familiar.
This seems to me like something that couldn't have been done before. What I mean by that is that I don't think that Glass could have composed this piece at any time in the past. Subject matter and new developments aside, I don't feel that he even could have or been prepared to do it.
The same thing goes for the audience. Over 40 years Glass has earned our attention on this scale and duration. As constant listeners we are willing to go along for this long journey precisely because of an artistic trust he has built up. For those willing to go on that journey, it's one of the most rewarding experiences I have ever had in any theater.
The cast demands are huge including 13 principals (many of them doubling) and more than one chorus. The forces in this case were all wrangled by Maestro Dante Santiago Anzolini. Anzolini is one of those conductors that for anyone with a modicum of musical knowledge, every gesture is a clear direction. The conductor breathes with his singers and was on top of every cue and every balance. This is a gigantic score and in comments before the opera Glass said he had asked Anzolini (who not a month before conducted Akhnaten in Turin) to jump in on very short notice for an injured Dennis Russell Davies and Anzolini agreed. Then laughing, Glass said that after Anzolini agreed that Glass hadn't mentioned that the score was an (uncorrected) 500 pages of very complicated new music.
For me, a constant Glass listener, this all added up to something very interesting. The takeaway of the new Appomattox is such a rich and profound commentary on the American trajectory through the past 150 years, resting in an overwhelmingly opulently well-informed and elegant libretto, that only a composer who has spent a life in the theater and opera house could even attempt to make sense of it. Particularly in Act 2, with the hilarious Texan patois of Lyndon B. Johnson, that Glass managed to elevate into something palatable (the biggest and well-needed laughs of the night), I found the essence of the identity of the whole piece. Glass corralled the stories of dozens of primary participants of this important American history and coalesced them, pulled them by force into an intriguing narrative flow.
By force of sheer will, like a weight-lifter lifting up the 400lb. weight of race relations in American History into the light for all the world to see, and by seeing we are able to see that history for what it actually is: a shameful goddamn mess.
The recent assaults on the Voting Rights Act of 1965 as well as the recent racial strife in the country show that, despite disavowal in many corners of the United States, that the shame continues. Some think that all the big proactive work has been done in the name of race relations in the USA. Some think too much was done and it's better left alone. Some factions simply don't care. Appomattox is Philip Glass and Christopher Hampton, screaming from the top of voices that you should care, and there are a million reasons why.
Interview between Richard Guérin and opera director R.B. Schlather in advance of WEdnesday's opening of the Boston Lyric Opera's Production of Philip Glass's "In The Penal Colony", for more coverage check out the Boston Globe
Have you ever directed a Glass opera before? If not, what were your considerations at the outset of directing this opera?
I’ve never directed a full Glass opera before. I directed an excerpt from “Satyagraha" with a soprano at the indie nightclub (le) poisson rouge in NYC, where I live, probably three years ago. that was a totally vivid experience live. There really is no comparison for me between experiencing Philip’s music on recording vs live. I have such vivid memories of seeing performances of his operas, of “ Koyaanisqatsi." And this piece, “In The Penal Colony," has totally exploded for me in the rehearsal hall, finally hearing it performed live, revealing a totally sensual, passionate, intense dramatic experience, we all are getting lulled into the creepy Kafka fantasy by this very haunting and evocative soundscape.
Big considerations for me at the outset were about the performance space and the structure of the piece. The performance is to happen at the historic Cyclorama building in Boston, a 19th century art gallery basically, and definitely not a theater (thankfully!). And I had been directing mostly baroque opera seria by Handel, so it took me awhile to switch gears and internalize the very unique style and structure of Glass’ composition, which I needed to do to judge how to install it as a site-specific performance.
Then there is the whole Kafka element - Kafka famously defies interpretation, and I really struggled to connect to the story in a single interpretation because it can be read as so many allegories. Like all great opera performances, we are juggling a mash-up of dramatic story, text, music, performer and space and it’s taken me longer than any other piece I’ve worked on to figure out that balance for this site-specific production (which I blame on Kafka, not Glass!). And now I’m a week into studio rehearsals with the great maestro Ryan Turner and three totally game, sensitive, creative performers in this cast, and the last week has been really surprising but basically on track with how we’ve conceived of the piece done in this stripped down way for the venue.
That's wonderful that you discovered the ambiguity of interpretation. That's a major element in Glass's work whether it's in his narrative or non-narrative operas: the music itself is not descriptive or judgmental. In a sense it's left up to the viewer to take exception to that absurdity that's played out on stage. I mention this because it's a common refrain in people who like working with Glass's material. There's space for the audience to become invested in the drama in many ways, but there's also a number of ways the directors and singers can approach the work.
Glass's operas often have a social agenda/perspective, which is what makes Kafka a fascinating subject for him to have chosen. how do you feel this opera responds to the world around us? How is it relevant to right now?
That’s been the hardest part of this project - finding a single contemporary image for the piece, because unfortunately our contemporary life is pretty saturated with grotesque human rights violations. I’m always trying to land on a current image for an opera production, something that I can personally connect with, but also something the audience is going to recognize and help them immediately relate to the emotional energy of the story. Kafka’s extreme, absurd story is about a isolated penal colony, the fanatic officer who is in the grip of an unseen authority and maintaining a decaying execution machine which kills by slowly tattooing script onto the naked body, and the passive Visitor (an avatar for the reader) who witnesses this predatory unjust system, and ironic outcome (i won’t spoil it!).
My first thought after reading the score was about kids who get obsessed with violent video fantasy games, and who get so socially isolated in these fantasies that they then act out the scenarios with real guns and real death. but then i read that Kafka actually wrote “strafkolonie” because he had an existential fear about governments turning their new technologies against the bodies of their people. so his piece written in 1914 but not published until 1919 eerily prophesied much of what would follow in the 20th century, and today. The costume designer, my regular collaborator Terese Wadden, suggested I watch the recent documentary “citizenfour” about Edward Snowden’s revelation about the NSA’s collection of data, and his resulting paranoia about retaliation for his leak. this more abstract, premonitory fear about government, technology, and our privacy therefore took over in my imagination for how to portray the Visitor in this production. And as it’s emerging in the rehearsal hall, the performance is more like a dream, or a nightmare, less realistically played out, more suggestive, mysterious and scary, I think.
Did you have any revelatory moments?
The big revelation for me is the music - by which I mean finally being in a studio with the musicians and hearing it live. I have been studying the piece for about a year now, and it even turned out that the librettist, Rudy Wurlitzer, lives basically down the block from me! We met up for breakfast about a month ago but we didn’t really talk about the piece, weirdly! Then I ran into Nico Muhly in NYC who said he was working with Glass when the piece was being composed and he gave some insights on the compositional process. I also read Philip’s memoir this summer on vacation, all the time chasing a way to understand his structuring, or get into the right vibe for interpreting his composition, for staging this music, for teasing out why this piece was written, figuring out how his mind works. And now we are working on it, and I’m getting to hear it live with the singers and just a piano at the moment, but I’m completely energized by how alive the piece is, it so clearly evokes the emotions, the machinery, the mood, the setting. it’s totally entranced me, I just listen to the music and try to activate the performer’s imaginations and then see where it takes us. And the surprise has been about how sensual, erotic, passionate, and intense the character's relationships are revealing themselves to be. And I think that’s because it’s all there in the music, i just had no idea until we started doing it how potent it would be.
I get all my energy from the music. I’ve been going to the opera since i was about 5 years old, and I studied voice and piano and double bass up until college, when my focus shifted to art history, but I’ve always been musical and always had a feeling for shape and space and color and theater, and always needed music to give me the energy to create what I make. The reward with this piece is getting away from the recording and working with the music live and being so surprised by how it’s all playing out now that I’m in the room with the performers.
When you were working the piece, did your ultimate approach fall into place organically or was there something of a consensus among yourself and those working on it that you needed to take the opera in a certain direction?
I’ve learned from watching it that the most rewarding experience comes when there isn’t a lot of information coming from the stage, so you as an audience viewer have to really focus and commit and figure out your own interpretation. It’s very rigorous to do so as a viewer, but the people who have come in to watch and gone with it have really been moved by the piece and performers, often without being able to articulate why. it’s the culmination of text, music, visual, sound that produces an undeniable punch.
I try not to force things too much in rehearsals. I’m already walking in with a performance architecture and costume and lighting that have been predicted by the designers, so my process becomes about activating the performers to connect to the environment we’re forcing on them, basically. We’ve been extremely lucky the company has given us a great amount of time in the studio to rehearse the piece, so we’ve had the time to slowly work through the piece and let the performance emerge as we all connect more and more to character and space. And now we’ve moved into the Cyclorama and are about to start working on the set (a monumental 115-foot wide space) and i can already tell that I want to keep getting deeper into the first half of the show just to keep stripping away my “directing” so it’s more about the performers and their own internal, personal connection to character in this unique space. Less “directing.” More alive, more disorienting, more dreamy.
Can you speak to some of your directorial decisions, like whether or not to show the machine, the specifics of the venue, etc.?
My designers and I decided immediately not to depict the machine - I think actually I had decided that even before reading the score! To me, in the theater, we could never make a piece of scenery that would be as terrifying and macabre as Kafka's description of it, and indeed the machine exists only in his fantastic description. Similarly, it should be thus for the audience. It’s also the “Jaws” principle - talking about the shark is scarier than seeing the shark. The challenge has been to then carry that over into the rest of the show, how much - in a libretto full of description of setting, character and action - do we visually reproduce? Then there’s the massive, circular room of the Cyclorama, a 19th century brick building with a elegant metal dome and clerestory windows and a modern, circular, white gallery wall creating an internal circle. Most present is a massive Buckminster Fuller sculpture that hangs in the center of the space, a hovering monolith. I was inspired to think of this space as an art gallery, which conjures up images of early Glass performances in downtown NYC galleries, packed with people sitting around. I started thinking about his contemporaries - people like Richard Serra and Dan Flavin - and the ideas of minimalist art, moving away from fictive or illusory representation, and installing commercially available materials in a space to draw the viewer’s attention more to experiencing the space itself. So we’ve installed a massive square footage of steel decking across half of the circle to create a monumental horizon line, lofting a rectangle of it to suggest a gallows or a viewing deck or an execution bed, and the resulting negative rectangle hole in the decking a kind of gaping grave.
Up against the circular gallery wall the structure suggests a deserted arena, or the valley where the executions happen in Kafka’s fiction. The costumes grew out of looking at pictures of Serra in a jump suit splashing lead, so here the officer’s uniform is a kind of jumpsuit in an un-human, larger than life scale based on Irving Penn images of laborers, the visitor is dressed in a white cotton t-shirt based on Edward Snowden sitting in his hotel room bed in “citizenfour", an Everyman who looks like he could have wandered into this nightmare from the streets of Boston, or out of the audience. The third character is the most interpretive. I wanted to avoid being negative or xenophobic about the third man, described in a discriminatory way by the other characters, and wanted to land on something more mysterious, elegant and otherworldly that could allow the performer (the beautiful ballet dancer Yury Yanowsky) to become variously the prisoner, the old commander, and the new commander. So here we are in this monumental, bare landscape, with these three figures. And it’s allowing me to explore my interest in stripped everything else away and focusing in on performers, their physicalities, and what they create when they sync up text and music and body to produce real emotion. Here also the audience experience can be equally about this unique space, where the copper dome, industrial HVAC, hanging Buckminster Fuller all eerily suggest the described elements of the unseen torture apparatus.
Music by Philip Glass
Libretto by Rudy Wurlitzer
Wednesday, Nov 11, 7:30pm
Thursday, Nov 12, 7:30pm
Saturday, Nov 14, 7:30pm
Sunday, Nov 15, 3pm
The Cyclorama at the Boston Center for the Arts
Sung in English
Nowhere else but in Philip Glass’s chilling and darkly comic two-character opera can audiences explore the breakdown of civil society in 90 minutes. Adapted from Franz Kafka’s dystopian short story, In the Penal Colony is a pitch-black fable about crime … and a very unusual punishment. Featuring Glass’s signature driving music and his fierce sense of theater, this Season’s Opera Annex will be a uniquely intimate and innovative production that will leave an indelible mark.
Conductor Ryan Turner
Stage Director R. B. Schlather
Set Designer Julia Noulin-Mérat
Costume Designer Terese Wadden
Lighting Designer JAX Messenger
Surtitle Designers John Conklin and Allison Voth
The Officer David McFerrin
The Visitor Neal Ferreira
Soldier Yury Yanowsky
BOSTON LYRIC OPERA CHAMBER ENSEMBLE
All photos below are of Neal Ferrerira, David McFerrin and Stage Director R. B. Schlather. Please credit Eric Antoniou for Boston Lyric Opera © 2015
Glass Notes publishes an update every week on Mondays.
A couple of things transpired over the weekend which got me thinking about the supposed attempt at objectivity in reviewing concerts. The first thing was a review by Variety from 1993 of Tim Burton's The Nightmare before Christmas. Variety seemed very proud, and rightly so, to have identified a brilliant piece of work at the moment of its release. So when you get it right you should be proud. When you get it wrong, apparently you are able to develop strategies for dealing with that little problem.
One phenomenon we see often when reviewing Glass is that writers who are are extreme pains to say anything nice about the music. They contort themselves into bizarre intellectual positions to say all sorts of things about elements having to do with the Glass work, but dance around avoiding having to say anything nice about Glass's music. For example, I recall one reviewer saying in a major American magazine that he didn't think much of Glass as a composer, but that he thought of Glass as a great man of the theater. This statement woudn't seem so problematic if the piece that was being reviewed had not been a piece of theater.
Another example is when the New York Times reviewed the premiere performances of Orphée in 1993.
"the music spins its wheels without providing perspective. It seems to look at everything either with light-hearted satire or other ominous anticipation. The singing is not heightened speech, just pitched speech. The opera cannot match the film's queasy dream quality...Mr. Glass has in the past been drawn to the interpenetration of universes, to the ways in which the timeless mixes with the mundane. ...the music didn't help; it seemed uncertain about its real subject, which like Cocteau's, was not the sacrifice demanded by art, but the lure of forbidden desire."
The same reviewer 14 years later:
"In 2007 at the Glimmerglass Opera I heard “Orphée” again, this time in a modern, sleek production by Sam Helfrich, with the conductor Anne Manson drawing an urgent and nuanced account of the score from the excellent orchestra and a compelling cast. This time, 14 years after my first hearing, I was swept away by “Orphée.” I have come to consider it among Mr. Glass’s most inspired works."
What happened? Same reviewer. Same opera. It's hard to ignore the existence of some sort of suggestion that the music had been changed when in fact it was the critic himself changed; Glass's musical notes on the page remained unaltered in the intervening years. But the world view of the critic had been transformed in that period. The fact that you like it today but not yesterday has more to do with you than it has to do with Glass. Not admitting that is embarrassing for this reader. New productions of Wagner happen every month - we hardly ever judge Wagner by the sins or successes of the production designers and directors nowadays, no should we. Wagner's musical notes on the page are what they are and the public's consistent interest in his music is really the only standard that matters.
I found myself as equally confused by yesterday's review in the Los Angeles Times of Glass's 17 year old score for the 1931 film Dracula "Dracula Meets Philip Glass and Kronos Quartet, and Issues Arise." Glass, Kronos Quartet and Michael Riesman performed a number of sold out shows in Los Angeles over the weekend and coinciding with Halloween - there was a buzz in the air and the shows were tremendously exciting for the appreciative audience.
Dracula has been a huge success wherever it's played now for almost two decades. I first saw this version in the year 2000 at Boston's Orpheum theater. The ovation then, as it was this past weekend, was as raucous as a rock concert. Glass's score is widely available on recording in its original form, Riesman and Levingston's solo piano recordings, and recently a new reading for string quartet by the Carducci Quartet - not to mention it can also be heard on the commercially available DVD from Universal so you can watch the film with or without Glass' music.
For me, after experiencing Dracula with Glass's music, it became nearly impossible to watch the film without. But in general, it has to be acknowledged after nearly two decades that this piece of work is here to stay. Sold out concerts are one thing. Successful sales of records are another measure of success. But more than anything, such intense interest in the piece over a long period of time is very much a measure of quality. I'm not sure what the reviewer thought he was going to hear/see, but I'm not sure what that has to do with the rest of us.
Glass Notes publishes an update every week on Mondays.
Dracula was the first Philip Glass show I ever attended. It was in Boston at the Orpheum Theater in maybe 1999 or 2000 and it was fantastic. Glass composed the score for the Kronos Quartet but they soon discovered when adapting it for live performance that the quartet would need break, so out of necessity Glass added/arranged two keyboard parts for himself and Michael Riesman to perform with the quartet and when they needed rests. So, by the time of the first performance live-to-film there were already TWO versions of Dracula - the original, and the version for quartet and two keyboards.
I was thinking this morning about the different versions of Dracula for two reasons. Firstly, my office is located in Salem Massachusetts, a.k.a. the Halloween capital of the world. Secondly, this week Philip Glass and Kronos Quartet perform the work in Los Angeles at the ACE HOTEL
So it was for a long while that these two versions were the only available versions of the score until Glass decided to add the newly popular piece to the touring repertoire of the Philip Glass Ensemble (keyboards,woodwinds.) As music director of the PGE, Michael Riesman prepared that adaptation and what is interesting about that version are the comedic elements in the score which are not apparent when played by only strings (basically anything played by the bass clarinet in the score underlines the comedy in Bela Lugosi's performance). So at this point THREE versions of the Dracula score existed.
Somewhere around 2006, Riesman again arranged the piece as a concert suite for piano and strings - presumably based on the quartet/keyboard version. It's a substantial suite and a wonderful concert piece that remains unpublished and only exists for Riesman orchestra performances. This is now known as the FOURTH iteration of Dracula.
Riesman was so intimately involved in the material at this point that when working on a new album of solo piano transcriptions he decided to perform the entirety of the Dracula score for solo piano. For me there's something magical about the solo piano arrangement that evokes the old movie-house feel. So it was that a FIFTH version of Dracula came to be.
Riesman's Solo Piano version should not be confused with Bruce Levingston's piano arrangement of Dracula (SIXTH VERSION):
Then over the past two seasons Riesman began a series of chamber concerts with violinist Chase Spruill during which they performed a suite for violin and piano (SEVENTH VERSION):
I've always felt that there was some instrumental neutrality to the way Philip Glass composes music that lends itself to all sorts of transcriptions. I have a feeling that Dracula would also sound good on according trio or for brass band. Such musical resilience speaks to compositional strength. It reminds me of Shostakovich's take on the issue:
"A great piece of music is beautiful regardless of how it is performed. Any prelude or fugue of Bach can be played at any tempo, with or without rhythmic nuances, and it will still be great music. That's how music should be written, so that no-one, no matter how philistine, can ruin it."
So perhaps there will be more versions of this score in the future for these are just five of the many guises of Dracula.
Glass Notes publishes an update every week on Mondays.
Looking forward - one of the strongest characteristics of Philip Glass's music, is its constant sense of forward drive which captures one of the most basic and admirable human characteristics. This perpetuum mobile serves dramatic purposes in that no matter what transpires, Glass's music - and his characters - constantly move forward.
This part of Glass's music coincides perfectly in his operas about men (indeed his 20 something operas to a large extent only take men as their main subjects). The composer's visionary music is often a perfect analog for the vision of the main characters. Such is the case with Gandhi, Akhnaten, Kepler, Disney, et al. These are men of great conviction in their artistic, religious, political visions of the world. These characters remain undeterred in their life's work to strive to achieve their goals.
And so it is with Philip Glass's music. The music constantly looks forward, hardly ever looks back or pauses to be self-referential. It captures that admirable human quality of moving forward not merely for its artistic agenda, but also satisfying and celebrating humankind's most basic desire to survive among the madness. In KOYAANISQATSI, as spectators we are presented with images of a terrifyingly inhuman world. But there's something about the inherent drive of the music which makes such a vision digestible if not exciting. In the case of that film, I have never been able to resolve my own feeling of excitement about such a dire portrayal of the conditions of our collective life. My takeaway was that despite such bleakness, the Glass engine grinds on and gives beauty to meaninglessness. The search for beauty is art's greatest purpose. Such character has always been my highest standard in art, much like in the case of Mahler's Second Symphony, perhaps music's loudest and defiant cry into the abyss.
The Glass musical engine always moves forward. It's always been an extremely attractive quality to his music for me. It's this aspect of Glass's musical language that I'm thinking about as I watch this Guggenheim workshop, Works & Process on Glass's opera APPOMATTOX. What is discussed is extremely interesting to me on a number of levels and I hope to write about it more in the coming weeks and months.
It is true that the opera was relatively well-received back at its first iteration in San Francisco in 2007. In the intervening years I have studied the opera from the archival audio and high-definition video which was made at San Francisco Opera. The piece was composed at an extremely busy time in Glass's compositional life, even by Glass standards. There are a few long-term artistic goals to which Glass returns to only when given an opportunity. Much like Appomattox, Glass has always hoped to "complete" his oratorio The Passion of Ramakrishna, doubling its length from 45 minutes to an evening length 90 minutes. But the composer has yet to find the chance to do it. In the case of Appomattox, the truncated period of composition in addition to the revelation of the stage play version of the story by the librettist Christopher Hampton, gave Glass and overwhelming desire to re-examine the opera from top to bottom. I can think of no other case like it in Glass's catalog.
Indeed, the occasions of Glass revising his major works are almost unprecedented. I can think of the not-small revisions of the Toltec Symphony, but those changes were really nothing more than edits and didn't require any new composition. Appomattox adds somewhere from between 60 and 90 minutes to the original length of the opera. There has been a major overhaul of the basic dramaturgy of the whole piece and for those of us interested in what this final outcome will finally achieve, we will have to go to Washington DC next month to find out. Of only one thing can we be certain of at the end of this process...that the very next day the unrelenting locomotive of creativity known as Philip Glass will be on to the next thing.
Glass Notes publishes an update every week on Mondays (unless Monday is a Holiday!)
Oh how time flies. It was indeed five years ago that the Carducci Quartet published its first volume of Glass quartets recorded for the Naxos label in 2010. A few weeks ago, the quartet tackled most of the remaining repertoire Glass has written on that scale including String Quartet No.5 (1991), an eight-movement suite of music from Glass's Dracula (1999), and the String Sextet arrangement of Symphony No.3 - mistakenly listed on the back of the CD as "Heroes" which is of course the subtitle of Glass's Symphony No.4.
Speaking from personal experience, Glass's quartets themselves - and recording them - is a challenging prospect. Not only is the music to varying degrees traditionally "difficult," but the composer's penchant for pure intervals lays bare any and all mistakes. These are mistakes which are common in string performance of all sorts of music from Mozart to Stravinsky. However, in the modern canon one of the benefits of moving away from tonality meant that such errors were less common because one might not know that certain music was being played out of tune intentionally or not. On the other hand, chez Glass, if you are playing out of tune it's immediately perceptible. As such, the marvelous part of the Carducci's playing in this case is not that they are playing in tune, but that there's a confidence and coherence in its reading of the works in question - that is to say they are playing precisely in tune at full speed.
Part of the splendor of early Glass's music was the human element of audible struggle in otherwise mechanical repetitions; since humans were playing Glass's music you would hear the struggles, mistakes, and minute shifts of time in entrances, exits, which brought the music a humanity despite its heavy repetitions. Most of Glass's music for string quartets come mostly from a "later" period of a mature composer with the exception of String Quartet No.1 (1966) which is in fact his Opus One in the minimalist style. Carducci Quartet relishes in the more Romantic elements of Glass's later style, all the while maintaining an expert technical command required for all the rhythmic precision necessary for this music to thrive.
No where is this more evident than in the Carducci Quartet's interpretation of String Quartet No.5. The piece is in five movements but with each movement marked attaca, meaning that the piece should really be heard as one big movement. With that in mind, I've always heard the piece as a four movement prelude to a hoe-down jubilation in the fifth movement - possibly the joyous thing Glass has ever composed. Everything energy and momentum leads to that movement and its celebratory middle section. With an extended, perhaps exaggerated, held note at the end of the fourth movement, the Carducci's seem to understand the architecture of the whole piece in a complete and dramatic sense. For me, that held note indicated everything of the group's mastery of the music.
It is refreshing to hear a new extended suite from Glass's Dracula. The music was reserved for performances by Glass and the Kronos Quartet for a very long time as Dracula remains part of the active repertoire (Glass and Kronos will perform Dracula at the ACE HOTEL in Los Angeles this Halloween). Michael Riesman arranged the entirety of the score for piano, and pianist Bruce Levingston made his own transcriptions and recorded them, as well. The score also exists in an arrangement for the Philip Glass Ensemble. However, until this new recording, no group besides Kronos Quartet has ever recorded an extended suite for the original arrangement of string quartet. Again, the performance is brilliant.
Once upon a time, all this music would have been considered challenging in some way to performers and audiences alike. Perhaps owing to the youth of the players involved here, it's clear to me that Glass's musical language is now completely part of the musical vernacular of our time: these players "get it" and reveal themselves to be nothing less than masters of Glass's style - fluent practitioners of his language. This is on full display in tracks like "The Storm" with it's quick tempo and rapid shifts from pizzicato to arco, then leading to displays of lucious melodic playing in "In The Theatre" and a virtuosic unraveling of everything in "The End."
For the arrangement of Glass's Third Symphony for String Sextet, the Carducci Quartet brought in violist Cian Ó Dúill and cellist Gemma Rosefield. The enlarged group loses nothing in organic intensity. In all, this new release flows brilliantly from one track to another. In terms of programming, it works great, it's the kind of all-Glass concert I think would work great in live performance: a chamber music masterwork, followed by theater/film music of a Romantic nature, concluding with a larger and more serious piece with symphonic dimensions. It highlights elements of the highest qualities in Glass's music in many different media in which he composes. Glass's music benefits from and is complimented by such highly accomplished performances. Highly Recommended
Lesson for the day: Never compose anything, especially a long blog entry, into Typepad in your browser. My entry "Philip Glass Doesn't Sleep" was lost this morning. I may attempt to recreate it at a later day.
A soothing balm to such disappointment - Now on YouTube for viewing: