Signal, featuring Michael Riesman and conducted by Brad Lubman
Soloists and Chorus of the Landestheater Linz
Bruckner Orchester Linz
Dennis Russell Davies
Orange Mountain Music
When Glassworks, Philip Glass’s first release on a major label (CBS Masterworks) came out in 1982, many of us felt it was the beginning of the end, a sellout to get his music heard by a larger audience, consisting of small snippets of his music that paled compared with the incredible music he wrote for Satyagraha, Einstein on the Beach, Music with Changing Parts, etc.
All of that is true.
However, Glassworks is still good to listen to, has some nice moments, and I’ve always wished Glass had kept the Islands movement going much longer-it ends just as it really hits its groove. And very importantly, Glassworks is still far, far better, in my opinion, than much of the music Glass has written in the past decade.
Other than being remastered for listening on a Sony Walkman, Glassworks has never really been recorded or performed in its entirety outside of that initial CBS Masterworks release. Individual movements, most notably Facades, get performed and recorded individually from time to time. But this album, recorded live at the NYC performance venue Le Poisson Rouge, represents the first time Glassworks has been performed (in an arrangement) in its entirety by a group that is not the Philip Glass Ensemble.
When I first listened to this album, I was greatly disappointed. The miking and mastering, which is a consequence no doubt of this being a live performance, seemed to make the music seem cluttered; it is hard to hear all the individual lines in Floe, for example, and the bass lines just get lost at times. There is no question that this music benefits from recording and all the nuances that go into the mixing and mastering processes.
But in many ways, this is also a great album, in that it confirms that live musicians can indeed perform continuous music without the major gaposis that usually arises in live performances, even those by the Philip Glass Ensemble. I was actually blown away, having heard many live performances of Glass’s music in which performers drop out to breathe or even get lost in the myriad of notes streaming without break. This performance by Signal is nothing short of incredible; they don’t get lost, and their winds seem to be able to play without the need for room air. I’ll have to remember that each time I get told my own music for winds/brass is unplayable except by those rare performers who can circular breathe.
The inclusion of Glass’s early, and wonderful, Music in Similar Motion, is welcome. While it lacks some of the frenetic energy found of Glass’s early Chatham Square release that is still the definitive version, Signal’s performance, a few minutes longer than that of Glass’s ensemble, works well. I prefer it to the performance by Alter Ego on their Glass album from a few years ago.
So all in all, Glassworks, as performed live by Signal, is a worthwhile album for anyone interested in Glass’s music.
As mentioned, Glassworks could be looked at as a transition away from the longer repetitive works of the 60’s, 70’s and early 80’s. Kepler, Glass’s 23rd opera, almost bears no relation to his earlier music except for the trademark syncopations and arpeggiations. Kepler really strikes me as more of an oratorio-there are really no main characters outside of Kepler, and as for plot and drama-look elsewhere. Just as Einstein on the Beach seemed to push the definition of “opera” to its limits, so does Kepler. The music is interesting at times, but truthfully, could just not keep me that interested very long. It struck me as many of Glass’s recent operas do-a few interesting ideas here and there, but nothing earthshaking. Unlike Satyagraha or even the somewhat weaker Akhnaten, there is little here that I find truly memorable. But then, it’s hard to get particularly passionate about an opera about an astronomer/scientist lecturing about his theories and findings. I love listening to great scientists lecture, but most of their work just doesn’t lend itself to a musical setting. As much as I’d love to see someone dramatize Chandasekhar’s dismissal by the noted British astrophysicist Arthur Eddington or the discovery of transposable genetic elements by Barbara McClintock, I’m just not sure these things are ready for their realization as operas. In some ways, I even think Glass’s earlier opera, The Making of the Representative for Planet 8, has more memorable moments, and that work is not up to his previous standards, I think.
Kepler, performed very devotedly by extremely talented musicians from Linz, Germany, doesn’t suffer from a halfhearted realization. This group, conducted by Dennis Russell Davies, clearly in enthusiastic about Glass’s recent music, and that’s a good thing. But after 23 operas, I think Glass’s formula has gotten stale. He’s become the Haydn of the opera world, perhaps. True, there is some more prominent use of percussion in this opera, but if the best thing one can say is “Wow-he’s using percussion to a larger degree,” then there’s a problem.