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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 extremely prolific.

Glass also proved inspirational for other talented composers. His influence on John Adams, Steve Reich and their successors is greatly influencing music today.

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 the opera.

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 is perfect.

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)


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P. O. Box 33025, Los Gatos, CA 95031-3025
Banner photos by Bob Shomler
©San José Opera Guild   2008