Beyond Akhnaten – A quick look into the Philip Glass realm

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Phelim McDermott’s wonderful English National Opera production of Philip Glass’ operatic masteriece, Akhnaten (1983), closes tonight after a series of sold-out perfromances. With a stupendous cast, featuring Anthony Roth Costanzo, Rebecca Bottone and Katie Stevenson in the key roles, the ENO revival of Akhnaten has been a very special occasion indeed.

Akhnaten is, in many ways, a watershed in the Glass oeuvre. It is a sum and pinnacle of techniques developed by Glass from the mid-sixties on, as well as a herald of many stylistic features to be further developed by the composer his more recent output.

As a part of a wider musical phenomenon of the first half of the sixties, later labelled, by Michael Nyman, as minimalism, Glass made his first attempts at a highly reductionist style while in Paris, studying with the legendary Nadia Boulanger. Inspired by his encounters with Indian music, Glass started experimenting with structures derived from repetitions of short musical cells.

One of the first manifestations of his new style was the String Quartet No. 1 (1966), a transitory piece premiered by the Kronos Quartet two decades later. While driving a cab and running a moving company in New York in the late sixties and early seventies, Glass wrote a series of experimental pieces for his newly establsihed Philip Glass Ensemble, which became the main vehicle for performing his music way up to the eighties.

Music with Changing Parts (1970) was Glass’ first full evening work, and also the first one to be recorded. For Glass, the eighty-minute Music with Changing Parts opened up a way to more extended structures, which in turn paved the way for opera. With Einstein on the Beach (1976), first performed on an European tour and the at the Metropolitan Opera, Glass’ operatic output was set in motion.

While Einstein was scored for the Philip Glass Ensemble, small chorus and a solo violin, Glass soon found himself working with more traditional operatic forces. Scored for orchestra, without violins, large chorus and soloists, Akhnaten was not only the most dramatic work Glass had written hitherto, but also the impetus for his orchestral music, soon to follow.

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In 1987, Glass’ Violin Concerto, scored for a full orchestra, was premiered at Carnegie Hall. Followed by his Symphony No. 1 ”Low” (1992), based on the music of David Bowie and Brian Eno, Glass began a series of symphonies, now yielding to twelve in total. In both of these works, Glass transformed his ensemble writing into orchestral textures of splendid originalty.

In the course of years, Glass’ orchestral music, embedded in polytonal harmonies first appearing in Akhnaten, became ever more refined, with kinship to the music of Poulenc, Honegger and Milhaud. In his Symphony No. 3 (1995) and Concerto for Saxophone Quartet and Orchestra (1995, also existing as a quartet version), the French background of Glass’ schooling as a composer came into fore, with most charming results.

Yet, it was the Cocteau trilogy that celebrated Glass’ Parisian upbringing in its most resplendent guise. Based on Jean Cocteau’s film scripts from the 40s and 50s, Glass’ dramatic expression was distilled into chamber operas par excellence. Starting with Orphée (1992), the most iconic of all operatic subjects, Glass wrote one of his most beautiful and touching scores. Four years later, Les Enfants terribles (1996), a masterfully intense, almost claustrophobic dance-opera for four singers and three pianos closed the trilogy.

Inauguring the new millennium, Glass wrote probably the most riveting of his concertante works, the Concerto-Fantasy for Two Timpanists and Orchestra (2000). An upliftingly energetic and joyouysly virtuosic piece, the fantasy has become, deservedly, an essential part of the percussion concerto literature.

Alongside orchestral music, Glass has written a considerable body of chamber music, including eight string quartets. Among these, the String Quartet No. 5 (1991), written for the Kronos Quartet, holds a special place. Cast in five movements, the quartet employs an inspiringly wide range of moods and textures, from the most subtle and intimate soundscapes to cathartic bursts of rhythmic energy.

In addition, Glass has forged a succesful career as a film composer, both in Hollywood as well as in more experimental circles. His first collaboration with Godfrey Reggio, Koyaanisqatsi (1983) has become a veritable classic. A full-lenght non-narrative, Koyaanisqatsi is a true collaboration between a composer and a director, with Glass’ powerful score perfectly in accord with Reggio’s equally compelling imagery of the clash between the 20th century lifestyle and the ecosystem.

Speaking of the 20th century, Glass operatic output became a full circle with The Perfect American (2013), portraying the last years of another iconic character of the century, Walt Disney. With a poignant look at its controversial main character, The Perfect American turns into a formidably honest portrayal of our creative culture in general.

Glass’ music is a unique mix of westen and nonwestern infulences as well as high art and popular culture, resulting in a joyously original, ever evolving musical style with a multitude of discoveries. At 82, he is as active as ever, composing and performing with remarkable energy and imagination. Long may it continue!

c Jari Kallio

p.s. Check out the music via nkoda: https://www.nkoda.com/playlist?ref=b534948a-2323-44d7-8d92-858d771a5540

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