Philip Glass's Early Work Still Sets the Standard
NEW YORK — HOW far minimalist music has traveled in the past 25 years! But has the journey been a good idea?
This question arises from recent presentations of work by Philip Glass, a pioneer of the minimalist style - based on simple harmonies, hard-driving rhythms, and strongly repetitive patterns. His new opera "The Voyage" earned respectful reviews in its Columbus Day premiere at the Metropolitan Opera but failed to convince some longtime admirers of Mr. Glass that his music was evolving along the most stimulating pathways available.
More recently, the tenth annual Next Wave Festival at the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) presented a concert called "Glass Reflections" that showcased three Glass works including a 1969 ensemble piece, a 1989 orchestral suite, and a new symphony in its American premiere. A week later, the festival hosted a revival of "Einstein on the Beach," a seminal 1976 opera by Mr. Glass and theater artist Robert Wilson.
The oldest and newest of these works - the rigorous "Music in Similar Motion" and the ambitious "Low" Symphony, respectively - encapsulate the changes that Glass's minimalism has undergone.
The earlier piece is tenaciously focused on a series of runs and arpeggios executed with fierce intensity by an ensemble of five keyboard players; the effect is singleminded in mood, abrasive in texture, and daunting in its focused energy.
By contrast, the new symphony is an expansive rumination scored for full orchestra with no electronic supplementation; the effect is musically varied, caressing to the ear, and not very invigorating. Tellingly, its most effective moments occur when it falls back on trademark Glass devices, such as descending chromatic runs that give some passages a delicate, almost mystical atmosphere.
For the rest, it's a responsible and imposing work that rarely catches fire the way Glass pieces of the 1970s and '80s used to do. The symphony takes its title and themes from a 1977 rock album by David Bowie and Brian Eno, and even this 15-year-old work of "low culture" has a more charismatic presence today than most of Glass's reworking.
There's much to respect in the "Low" Symphony but little to excite the ear or enchant the imagination. Its predecessor on the program, the slightly less recent "Itaipu: A Symphonic Portrait for Chorus and Orchestra," is downright dull despite its exotic agenda of musically portraying the flow of water from a Brazilian river to a hydroelectric dam.
The earlier Glass works heard at BAM fared much better than their newer counterparts. A few days after "Music in Similar Motion" proved its enduring worth, "Einstein on the Beach" showed that it is still a towering masterpiece of 20th-century art.
Weaving a number of Einsteinian motifs - from equations and calculations to baggy pants and sneakers - into a majestic, dreamlike, and good-humored tapestry designed and directed by Mr. Wilson, it shows minimalism in its most "maximalist" form, bursting with explosively powerful rhythmic and textural ideas that cascade from amplified keyboards and woodwinds for a nonstop 4 1/2 hours.
Performed by dancers Lucinda Childs and Sheryl Sutton, violinist Gregory Fulkerson, the Philip Glass Ensemble with music director Michael Riesman, and a large company of supporting players, it is as stunning and sometimes overwhelming as ever, indicating that "classic minimalism" remains the best minimalism as this still-controversial style ventures further into the '90s.
* The "Low" Symphony will be released in February on Point Music, a recording label founded by Glass earlier this year.
"Einstein on the Beach" continues its current international tour Dec. 11-21 at MC/93 Bobigny in Bobigny, France; a recorded version is available on Columbia Masterworks. "The Mysteries and What's So Funny," by Glass with artist Red Grooms and choreographer David Gordon, plays at the Joyce Theater here Dec. 15-Jan. 3. JoAnne Akalaitis's production of Georg Buchner's play "Woyzeck," with music by Glass, is now at the Joseph Papp Public Theater here.