Musical fairy tale `Juniper Tree' shows off minimalist touch of Glass

Can a composer do too much composing? Some would pin this rap on Philip Glass, whose output is prodigious by current standards. Film and dance scores come tripping from his pen when he isn't dashing off suites and theater music -- or a ``chamber opera'' like his latest offering, ``The Juniper Tree,'' composed in tandem with Robert Moran.

Fans of Glass's pulsing, repetitive style are delighted with so many new pieces all the time. But others demur, seeing his high productivity as the sign of a facile and superficial artist. And some critics go further yet, suggesting that the whole ``minimalist'' approach -- which Glass helped invent -- is more ``minimal'' than it would care to admit, in depth and substance as well as structure and spirit.

Is the leading ``minimalist'' composer really a clever hack with a good gimmick? Is his aesthetic merely an excuse for shallow, mechanical work? Is today's most popular classical music dogged by ``too many notes,'' to borrow the emperor's gripe against Mozart in ``Amadeus''?

Both nay-sayers and yea-sayers will find evidence to support their cause in ``The Juniper Tree,'' now onstage at the American Repertory Theatre here. Written with composer Moran and librettist Arthur Yorinks, and staged by the inventive Andrei Serban, it reflects ideas and sensibilities other than Glass's alone. Yet he is identified so closely with the ``minimalist'' perspective -- which dominates this project all the way -- that its assets and debits will pile up more quickly at his doorstep than at anyone else's.

For myself, I count ``The Juniper Tree'' a success. Plenty of people disagree, to be sure, but I think their objections are generated more by the content of the story than by its musical expression. Taken from a Brothers Grimm fairy tale, the plot is wild stuff even by opera standards, complete with a child-killing stepmother, a decapitation scene, and a murder cover-up that goes ``Sweeney Todd'' one better. If you agree with scholar Bruno Bettelheim that ``like all great art, fairy tales both delight and instruct,'' you'll take this in stride, especially since the mood is always dreamlike and fantastical. But even those who see fairy tales as great literature may object to their words and actions being literalized onstage, where they run a strong risk of seeming grisly, absurd, or both.

Encouraged by the storybook set and sprightly tone of the first scene, I willingly suspended my disbelief for ``The Juniper Tree'' and found myself engrossed by nearly all of it. The music by Glass, with its metronomic pace and nimble arpeggios, made a nice contrast with the passages by Moran, who likes to stretch out in a looser, almost Wagnerian way -- proving once again the diversity to be found within the ``minimalist'' realm. Serban's staging veered appropriately between the literal and the highly stylized, keeping even the most outlandish moments of the story (such as the airborne finale) within the bounds of credibility. All the singers were in fine voice at the matinee I attended, with Jane West and Lynn Torgove giving especially vivid portrayals. The conductor, Richard Pittman, met the challenges of the score admirably.

All of which helps refute the charge that Glass has been too prolific for his own good. If even a modest fairy-tale opus like ``The Juniper Tree'' can generate 90 minutes' worth of solid musical invention and narrative intensity, he must be paying keen attention to every measure he writes, and his patented style must have something going for it. True, much of Glass's music has fallen below par in recent years. But his best efforts have a structural rigor and sonic energy that stand up to repeated hearings as no second-rate compositions could. Meanwhile, the ``minimalist'' school continues to grow, evolve, and sprout new branches in ways that its misleading label -- despised by Glass and others who fall under it -- can't begin to describe. (Moran deserves a special nod for holding successfully to his own devices while teamed with such a strong partner.)

As for the cry of ``too many notes'' or ``too many pieces,'' a famous Hollywood star put it well many years ago: Too much of a good thing can be wonderful.

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