A Rewarding Weekend as the BBC Celebrates Philip Glass at Eighty

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Total Immersion: Philip Glass at 80: Barbican, London, 28 & 29.1.2017. (CC)

The BBC Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Marin Alsop featuring Katia and Marielle Labeque on pianos in the Barbican Hall on Saturday, 28 January 2017.  Photo by Mark Allan/BBC
BBC SO, conducted by Marin Alsop featuring Katia and Marielle Labeque on pianos (c) Mark Allan/BBC

Saturday, January 28

11am, Frobisher Rooms, Barbican

Introduction to Philip Glass by Pwyll ap Siôn

1pm, Milton Court Concert Hall

Glass – Etudes (selection); Glassworks

Robert Allen, Ben Smith (pianos); Musicians from the Guildhall School/Richard Benjafield (director)

3pm, Cinema 1

Glass Koyaanisqatsi (1982, dir. Godfrey Reggio, 96 mins)

5pm, Milton Court Concert Hall

GlassThree Songs for chorus a cappella
Riley Mexico City Blues (Chorus 193)
MuhlyI Cannot Attain Unto It
Nyman – Miserere from The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover
Muhly Three Moon Songs
GlassEinstein on the Beach – Knee Play 3

BBC Singers/Tecwyn Evans (conductor)

8pm, Barbican Concert Hall

Glass Akhnaten – Prelude to Act 1; Double Concerto for Two Pianos and Orchestra (UK Premiere); Itaipú

Katia & Marielle Labèque (pianos); BBC Symphony Chorus & Orchestra/Marin Alsop (conductor)

Sunday, January 29

 7.30pm, Barbican Concert Hall

Glass Visitors (2013, dir. Godfrey Reggio, 87 mins)

BBC Symphony Orchestra/Michael Riesman (conductor)

There was a slightly strange split between the two days, with the Total Immersion day itself on the Saturday and a “supplementary” screening with large orchestra of the recent Visitors on the Sunday evening.

It fell to Glass scholar Pwyll ap Siôn, Professor of Music at Bangor University, to provide a fascinating introduction to the music of Glass, beginning by quoting a modern offshoot of Glass: an excerpt, “Árbakkinn”, from the haunting Island Songs by Ólafur Arnal. Moving backwards, the talk gave an overview of the various periods in Glass’s music, the composer’s search for his own voice and his discovery of a voice in film imagery that can say more than language can speak.

The move to hearing complete Glass pieces was welcome: a quartet of piano Etudes followed by the well-known Glassworks. Robert Allen found the rhetoric of Glass’ Etude No. 6, with its insistent repeated notes, well (preferable to the rather manic Vikingur Ólafssonon on his recent DG release); Allen’s performance of the gentler No. 15 was equally successful, the inner voices beautifully done. Ben Smith offered Etudes Nos. 8 and 13. Impeccably sensitive in the opening “drooping” gesture that is set against the rather more objecting neighbour-note figure, he saved his virtuosity for the ringing, bright No. 13. Imbued here almost with a sense of impatience, it was a terrific account. Balancing this was the Guildhall musicians’ performance of Glassworks. The opening piano solo was here a tad literal, but the second movement, “Floe”, emerged beautifully out of it and included a well-judged crescendo. The still centre of “Island” seemed to imply that Glass’s upward and downward gestures were those of breathing, of inspiration and expiration, a massive contrast to the frantic brightness of “Rubric” (itself foreshadowing Koyaanisqatsi). The orchestrated version of “Opening” worked marvellously, the perfect prolongation of the fifth movement, “Facades”.

There seemed to be some ticketing problems with the film of Koyaanisqatsi, from what I can gather, but once we were settled the film was all one had fervently hoped. Having known the soundtrack since the early 1980s (just a couple of years after the film was issued), to see it against the visuals was a treat indeed.  From the opening “pre-human” visuals with Glass’s implied passacaglia bass and the ultra-bass intonings of “Koyaanisqatsi”. Time-lapse photography is an integral part of the camerawork of this film, giving Nature an inexorable aspect. We see, and experience in Glass’s masterly score, dizzying consumerism, manic overcrowded freeways and, essentially, the folly of man and present-day society. The film is a monument in itself to what can be achieved by the marriage of minimalism and image.

The next day Koyaanisqatsi was complemented by the screening, with live orchestra this time in the shape of the BBC Symphony, of Visitors, another collaboration between Glass and director Godfrey Reggia. The film is shot entirely in black and white, the intention being to give depth to the subjects without colour distracting the eye. Mostly, Visitors shows human faces staring at the camera or in some sort of unstated activity (the implication is that they are watching some sort of sport). But the most memorable shots are of a female gorilla, who stares completely impassively at the camera for what feels like improbable amounts of time (it is actually 19 minutes). The gorilla, filmed at Bronx zoo, seems to refer to some primordial origin of us, the humans who otherwise populate the film. The BBC Orchestra excelled at what is a very challenging score. Occasional repeated figures in the strings seemed to hint at Bruckner(!); there was a particularly beautiful instance of scoring from bassoons and harp. It was a perfect way to close the weekend.

Returning to Saturday afternoon, a choral concert at Milton Court held unexpected delights, and not just in terms of the repertoire. Conductor Tecwyn Evans led the audience in an impromptu, minimalist inspired Happy Birthday which was recorded on his phone for later tweeting. That massive embarrassment aside, this was an opportunity to explore some of Glass’s own music alongside some related offerings. Glass’s Three Songs (1984) takes texts by Leonard Cohen, Raymond Lévesque and Octavio Paz and here Glass tropes find a cosy home in the a cappella arena. This is in fact a superb set of songs, the life-affirming final “Pierre de soleil” a real highlight. The bluesy aspect of Riley’s Mexico City Blues was well realised; it was Muhly’s I Cannot Attain Unto It that really impressed in this spell-binding account. Emma Tring was the excellent, soaring, radiant soprano soloist in Nyman’s “Miserere”. If Muhly’s Three Moon Songs were perhaps not the most memorable offering of the day, it was good to hear Glass’s “Knee Play 3” from Einstein on the Beach, its rapid countings almost clean enough.

So, finally, to the evening concert with star soloists the Labèques. The Prelude to act 1 of Akhnaten (an opera seen not so long ago at ENO) finds the orchestra shorn of violins, darkening the sound. Marin Alsop found a lovely tapestry of sound, even if, as the piece progressed, there could have been more intensity. It was good to see a UK premiere, and even better to see the Labèques in town. The Double Concerto dates from as recently as 2014/15. It is cast in three movements, of which the second is fast and the final reflective. Here, the orchestra looked huge (and included violins). The opening seemed to be Milhaud-meets-Glass, a bright, brash Scaramouche, perhaps. It is a marvel how the Labèques work as “one” piano. The glittery nature of the first movement complemented the dynamism of the central panel. The finale, which has thematic links to the piano Etude No. 5, is more song-like, characterised perhaps by an orchestral “sighing” gesture. There was an encore, which was rather unhelpfully announced as “fourth movement” until one realised that it was the fourth of Four Movements for two pianos.

Finally, and perhaps a little anticlimactically, came Itaipú, a “symphonic portrait” for chorus and orchestra that dates from 1989. Exploring the relationship between science and nature, the work concentrates on the word Itaipú (“standing stone” in the South American Indian Guarani language) and the place, where at the Itaipú reservoir there stands a massive hydro-electric dam on the upper reaches of the Paraná river (on the Brazilian-Paraguayan border). The river is the work’s focus, tracing its journey; the chorus relates a creation myth. Unfortunately, the BBC Symphony Chorus sounded rather insubstantial in the first movement (“Mato Grosso”). The effect was obviously intended to be monumental in the manner of an oratorio, but it felt contrived and the later stages of the first movement seemed closer to bad film music. The implication that this is far from Glass’s finest work was somewhat contradicted by the gentler second movement, “The Lake”. There was no doubting Alsop’s rapport with chorus and orchestra, nor her belief in the work, but the score never really hits a sense of rightness. The work returns to its starting point for the fourth movement, and not without some sense of relief.

Yet there was so much to celebrate in this weekend. Two momentous films, plus memorable student performances and great choral performances. Glass himself was in New York as the premiere of his most recent symphony takes place in New York on Tuesday, January 31, so there was no statutory standing ovation at the end of Saturday’s concert. But this was a rewarding weekend; of that there is no doubt.

Colin Clarke

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