NEW YORK — How times change. I moved to New York in late 1972, one of my main reasons being to partake first hand in the exciting New York downtown avant-garde scene, especially in music (Philip Glass, Steve Reich) and dance (Meredith Monk, now better known as a composer and singer, the Grand Union, Yvonne Rainer). Back then, Glass and Reich were unknown or scorned by the mainstream, midtown classical world. It was the era of uptown academic serialism vs. downtown experimentation, and the uptowners clung to the levers of power. Glass and Reich (then allies, soon rivals) and their cohorts played in private SoHo lofts or galleries or, occasionally, uptown museums. But not concert halls. The first time for Glass came only several years later in 1974, when he rented Town Hall for a night.
And look now. Glass just finished his season of sitting serenely in the Richard and Barbara Debs Composers Chair at Carnegie Hall. That meant five main concerts in the big Stern Auditorium and the mid-sized Zankel Hall, plus various ancillary events. The season was meant to celebrate Glass’ 80th birthday, even though he turned 81 on Jan. 31.
What conclusions can we draw from the central concerts (of which I heard four)? Opinions on Glass’ scarily prolific outpouring of music over the last 50 years mostly agree on one thing: that much of his later work repeats his old formulas, to greater or mostly lesser effect. But critics differ on whether this represents a falling off or just the same old, same old.
Anti-Glassians never heard merit in his music from the outset: it was all repetition to them, formulaic and arid. Czerny was often evoked. Others of us were transported. We loved the early work; we were swept up hypnotically. For us, austerity became meditative, near-religious purity. This period lasted from the earliest works for the amplified Philip Glass Ensemble from 1967 through Einstein on the Beach of 1976 and the operas Satyagraha and Akhnaten in the early ’80s.
After that, his output, with collaborative opportunities and commissions piling one after the other, became more erratic. There were wonderful successes — the film score for Koyaanisqatsi, several of the chamber operas, The White Raven, many of the later solo piano and cello scores. But there was way too much dross, too.
The five main Carnegie concerts — which Glass of course played a big role in programming — could hardly offer a comprehensive overview of his oeuvre; there’s simply too much of it. The first two events — with the strings of the American Composers Orchestra on Dec. 8 and the clumsily entitled Nico Muhly and Friends Investigate the Glass Archive on Feb. 8, both in Zankel — attested to Glass’ enormous influence, in New York especially, as a composer, patron, mentor, and Tibetan Buddhist. (There was also a time in the ’70s and ’80s when every other dance piece, modern and even ballet, seemed set to Glass.)
The American Composers Orchestra program, conducted lt;br&gby George Manahan, got the season off to a limping start. First came a young Peruvian composer, Pauchi Sasaki, who had worked with Glass in the Rolex mentorship program. Her music sounded deferentially Glassian, with hushed repetitions as backdrop for, first, scratching noises from a “speaker dress” of her own design, with little loudspeakers sewn into the fabric. The piece as a whole sounded bifurcated and inconsequential. Bryce Dessner, the guitarist of the Brooklyn rock band The National, has been gaining attention as a “serious” composer. His Réponse Lutosławski (2014) was meant as an homage to Lutosławski and his Musique funèbre of 1958, but it sounded twice as long and half as interesting, like knockoff Glass in his sorrowful, elegiac mode. Finally, there was Glass himself with his Violin Concerto No. 2, “The American Four Seasons,” with violinist Tim Fain. This was ostensibly another homage, but it sounded more like the over-familiar Glass, lacking in the charming, explicit nature-painting of Vivaldi.
A far more compelling attestation to Glass’ fatherly role for young composers was the second concert. Muhly served as Glass’ assistant for the first eight years of this century, and while his own music does not sound like Glass, who never imposes his own style on those he inspires, he clearly absorbed a work ethic and a mindset from the older man.
The program lasted 90 intermission-less minutes and hopscotched through Glass’ career in Muhly’s respectful arrangements, concentrating on the ’80s. There were selections composed for Glass’ ensemble and meaningful later works, including the closing scenes from Paul Schrader’s film Mishima and Satyagraha. The all-star downtown assemblage included the composer, singer, and violinist Caroline Shaw, and Laurie Anderson, who read a text she had originally recited in Glass’ operatic setting of the fifth act of Robert Wilson’s never-completed the CIVIL warS.
The most unusual of Muhly’s arrangements was the radiant conclusion of Satyagraha, which dispensed with the tenor singing Gandhi’s 30 ascending scales in the Phrygian mode. One missed the singing, but this still ended the concert on a properly transcendent note.
The Feb. 16 concert in Stern Auditorium plunged us back to Glass’ thrilling beginnings, albeit in an expanded arrangement that partially subverted the purity of the first version of his Music with Changing Parts. This was first heard in 1970 at the Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church, long before Isaac Stern and Carnegie would dream of opening their portals to a musical barbarian like Glass.
Much of this music’s old charms came through — the silvery sounds of the electric organs, the mournful winds, the floating, wordless soprano soloist, and the overall energy and flow. Several of the old ensemble gang, original or at least veteran, were on hand, including Jon Gibson on winds, the soprano Lisa Bielawa, and Michael Riesman playing keyboards and conducting. Glass sat at another keyboard but didn’t play much.
To nostalgia-tainted ears, however, Glass undercut the music by bringing in singers from the San Francisco Conservatory of Music and the San Francisco Girls Chorus, plus encouraging elaborate flights of fancy from the winds. Improvisational opportunities are built into this score, but the added textures made the music sound bloated.
Non-Western music has played a decisive role in Glass’ music from before the beginning, sometimes profoundly and sometimes more a mere layering of exotic coloration on top of his underlying “minimalist” (a term he now rejects) idiom.
I had to miss the Feb. 27 Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra concert in Stern Auditorium. Conducted by the orchestra’s Mexican music director Carlos Miguel Prieto, the program explored Glass’ links to Latin American music — a tradition in American composition going at least as far back as Copland. There was Revueltas’ La noche de los Mayas along with Glass’ own Days and Nights in Rocinha and his Concerto Fantasy for Two Timpanists and Orchestra. I also missed a joint concert of So Percussion and the JACK Quartet March 6 in Zankel; the only Glass there was the U.S. premiere of his String Quartet No. 8, a Carnegie co-commission.
The finale to all this Glass came on April 21 at Stern with the Pacific Symphony and Carl St. Clair, a loyal champion of Glass’ work. (The most loyal of all is the conductor and pianist Dennis Russell Davies, who was missed during this season of Carnegie concerts.) There seemed to be a lot of Orange County citizens who had made the trip to Carnegie, and they cheered everything. Most of it was worth cheering.
The program consisted entirely of recent work, exploring Glass’ vital connections to India in general and Ravi Shankar in particular. Glass has always adduced his collaboration with Shankar in Paris in 1965, transcribing his sitar improvisations into Western notation (along with his studies there with Nadia Boulanger), as crucial to the formation of his style.
The concert began with Glass’ “Meetings Along the Edge,” the fifth movement of a fascinating six-movement suite from 1990 originally intended as a project for the recording studio. The alternating movements are by either Glass or Shankar, each based on a theme by the other. Written entirely for Western instruments, “Meetings Along the Edge” takes a snaky, downward-drifting theme of Shankar’s and builds a lively divertissement around it.
Next came Shankar’s Sitar Concerto No. 3 with his daughter Anoushka Shankar, now a famous soloist in her own right. (She was raised and trained by her father; her half sister Norah Jones, the jazz-folk-pop singer and pianist, grew up with her mother.)
The concerto was composed in 2009, three years before Shankar’s death at 92. It was meant for Anoushka and developed with her, and even within the strictures of Western form and notation it contains a good deal of improvisation. But who orchestrated it went unmentioned. If it was Shankar himself, at his advanced age, he had developed mightily from his earliest efforts to combine East and West. The orchestral parts were witty and deft, blending beautifully with the subtly amplified sitar.
The concert — and this season-long celebration — ended with a major late Glass score, The Passion of Ramakrishna for chorus (the 110-voice Pacific Chorale) and two principal vocal soloists (soprano Elissa Johnston and baritone Christòpheren Nomura), plus three others. It was first performed in 2006 by the Pacific Symphony, which commissioned it along with Leonard Slatkin and the Nashville Symphony. The Pacific Symphony and Chorale also recorded it for release on Glass’ Orange Mountain Music label in 2012.
Its six movements lasted 48 minutes and count as Glass’ most extensive statement of his Indian, Tibetan, Hindi, and Buddhist spiritual beliefs. It may not match the beauties of Satyagraha, but it lies in that tradition, even if it is an oratorio rather than an opera.
Sri Ramakrishna lived in the 19th century and was among the Indian spiritual leaders who led to Gandhi, the subject of Satyagraha. This is a passion in the Christian sense; there is even a line equating Ramakrishna’s final sufferings with Christ’s Crucifixion. What’s puzzling is the depth of detail about Hindu deities demanded of a clueless Western audience. Kali is a (the?) central figure. The second movement is called “Sarada Devi.” The fourth movement is “The Mahasamadhi of the Master.” One gets the idea, but a little explanation would help.
What does come across is Ramakrishna’a suffering and transfiguration. Glass’ setting can’t escape some of his formulaic repetitions. But it is so warm and devotional and sincere that one can’t help being moved. A noble conclusion to a well-meaning (if long-belated) celebration of a great American composer. –
Arts critic John Rockwell worked at The New York Times as classical music critic, reporter and editor; chief rock critic; European cultural correspondent; editor of the Sunday Arts & Leisure section; arts columnist; and chief dance critic. He also directed the Lincoln Center Festival for its first four years. A prolific freelancer, he has published books on 20th-century American composition in all genres, Frank Sinatra, and Lars von Trier, and edited a compilation of his own journalistic writing as well as a coffee-table book on the 1960s.