Love It or Hate It
Sit Back and Enjoy the Bay Area’s Celebration of
The Inimitable Music of Philip Glass
by Mort Levine
Back in the mid-19th century when opera was
really riding high, so were composers. When Verdi
or Rossini came to town, the crowds would fill the
streets, cheer their hero and sing a favorite melody.
This month in the Bay Area, you may not see a
wild throng following Philip Glass around or singing
a favorite tune from a Glass opera. Not likely. But the
world’s most successful and prolific living composer
is celebrating his 70th birthday here with a whole series
of performances and events.
Such a description may raise more than a few objections
and some hackles, especially from traditional
classical music and opera lovers. Glass, early in his
career, broke the mold with his minimalist, austere
repetitions which were almost hypnotic for some and
considered subversive by others. He even had to create
his own ensemble because conventional orchestras
couldn’t or wouldn’t do his pieces. Indeed it found responsive
listeners among the young and the devotees
of rock and electronic music.
He managed to cross over into the mainstream
a few decades ago with music for movies like Koyaanisqatsi and even commercials. A raft of orchestral
works and several operas brought him ever larger audiences.
He also began selling lots of records, being
offered a plethora of commissions and proving to be
Glass also proved inspirational for other talented
composers. His influence on John Adams, Steve
Reich and their successors is greatly influencing music
David Gockley, San Francisco’s general director,
has worked with Glass for many years from the
1984 Akhnaten through to this month’s Appomattox.
He says Glass’ music today is far more lyrical and
richer in color than in the past. The world premiere
that opened October 5 in San Francisco is a case in
point where Glass weaves intricate patterns of hymns,
old marching songs and folk tunes into the fabric of
Music lovers hereabouts will find it difficult to
avoid the Glass doings here in our county as well as
throughout the Bay Area. Glass and his current librettist,
Christopher Hampton, are giving lectures, panel
discussions and forums. They began in mid September
and continue through October.
Stanford’s imposing Lively Arts season was
launched with a Philip Glass musical setting of poems
by Leonard Cohen called the Book of Longing. The
Other Minds Festival in SF brought conductor Dennis
Russell Davies to perform piano works by Glass. The
San Francisco Conservatory BluePrint Festival features
Glass’ Facade. There are choral and chamber
works being performed and even a special exhibit at
the California Historical Society. It’s an astonishing
outpouring and a major league tribute.
Our opera travels over the past thirty years have
brought my wife and me opportunities to sample much
of Glass’ output. As we reflect upon it, the range is dazzling.
Among the standouts were the Voyage, done at
NY’s Met, Dracula in London, The Photographer at
Santa Cruz’ Cabrillo Festival, 1000 Airplanes on the
Roof at Berkeley, and Satyagraha at San Francisco (it
will be put on at the Met again in April). True, not all
were winners. One eminently forgettable work with
director Robert Wilson we saw at Brooklyn Academy
of Music couldn’t even be recalled to memory. Nobody
This current homage to a living composer is indeed
a rarity. In our opinion, Philip Glass’ success is
well-deserved. But as we noted, opinions differ.
(SJOG Newsletter November, 2007 Issue)