Half Full, Half Empty


The Manitoba Chamber Orchestra paid Toronto’s Glenn Gould Studio a visit last night, at the end of a mini-tour of Ontario, organized by the Numus concert society. And for the occasion, the MCO brought the music of just one composer. The program was billed as “The Film Music of Philip Glass” – and although it wasn’t quite all film music, it was certainly all Glass.

The composer himself wasn’t present, but pianist and longtime Glass collaborator Michael Riesman was. He played in the Suite from Dracula and the Suite from the Hours. (Both works were arranged by him.) Sandwiched in between these was Glass’s Symphony No. 3.

Riesman brought a kind of authenticity – many years working with Glass – to bear on his assured performances. The MCO’s conductor, Anne Manson, ran a tight ship, often pressing her two dozen players forward to keep things moving along.

My memories of Philip Glass go back to the 1970s, when I discovered a recording of Einstein on the Beach in a library, and listened to it with fascinated horror. Since then, Glass has mellowed: his music has grown much less obsessive and unyielding. That’s a good thing, in my humble opinion.

Certainly the Suite from Dracula didn’t have the relentless going-nowhere-furiously quality of Einstein. In fact, it suffered from the opposite problem – it was choppy and episodic, and didn’t always hang together very well. The end result was bits of film music without the film.

I felt better about Symphony No. 3 – especially the fascinating third movement, with its layers of violins piled on top of each other in increasingly complex counterpoint. And there was a satisfying firmness about the Suite from the Hours – although also a sameness to the three movements, which could be labeled “solemnly,” “solemnly” and “even more solemnly.”

Overall, I enjoyed this concert: the MCO was on top of its game, and the choice of repertoire made for a more varied evening than some other all-Glass programs might perhaps have been. As well, these performances made me reflect on my accumulated feelings about Glass’s music.

By 1970, contemporary music had painted itself into a corner. I will forever be grateful to Glass for being one of a few composers with the courage and vision to boldly walk across the paint-job to a new and better place.

However, for me, Glass is always half full and half empty. His music is well crafted and dramatically effective, with a very clear sense of what it’s about. Yet after five decades of composing, he remains pretty much a one-trick-pony. His vocabulary is constricted in its aesthetic and affective scope, and his constant striving for high seriousness can be pretentious. At the end of the day, Glass’s music just isn’t as profound as he seems to want it to be.

A violinist in the MCO told me that the orchestra will record this program for an upcoming CD. I don’t know what label it will be on, or exactly when it will be released – but I’m sure we’ll hear about it when it happens.

© Colin Eatock 2011