Friday, January 1, 2010

In Glass's Orbit / Michael McDonagh

Philip Glass always does the unexpected. Or, as he said to me when we were talking on the phone about his subsequently Oscar-nominated score for Errol Morris's 2003 The Fog of War, "I'm a bad person to interview because I never stay on the subject." Well, yes and no. Yes, because Glass's focus on the work in front of him is unflinching, and no, because his instincts always lead him to surprising solutions. His latest two-act 155-minute intermissionless opera Kepler (2009) which American conductor Dennis Russell Davies and his Bruckner Orchester Linz, premiered at the Linz Opera September 20, 2009, as part of that city's celebrations as this year's Cultural Capital of Europe.

Kepler lived in Linz, Mozart's Symphony No. 36 was dedicated to it, Bruckner was choir director there, and two of the Nazis' death camps -- Malthausen and Gusen, whose specialty was getting rid of the intelligentsia -- were scant kilometres from its city limits. But then darkness is never far from light.

And darkness as distinct, or in contrast/opposition to light, is the motor that drives Glass's Kepler, but not in a Manichean way. Glass is far too subtle to put his cards on one table. Instead, being a practical practicing Buddhist, he seems to have chosen the unglamorous "Middle Way " which means seeing "things as they are" and in Kepler's case this is -- war, strife, and anyone who dares question him. The mathematician-teacher-astronomer-astrologer-provocateur, who lived from 1571 to 1630 -- seems to have been at the epicenter of cultural ferment, and The Thirty Years War (1618-1548), which began more-or-less as a conflict between Catholics and Protestants, and ended up devastating much of Europe, with a death toll as high as 11.5 million people (a little less than half of the top figure for the 1914-1918 War). Glass dramatizes these stresses in direct and indirect ways. And his in German and Latin libretto -- assembled by Austrian artist Martina Winkel, from Kepler's theoretical writings on the laws of planetary motion and other major discoveries, his enemies list, passages from the Lutheran Bible, and poems by Andreas Gryphius (1616-1664 ) -- works both as reportage and evocation.

The oratorio-like piece for the 79-member Orchester is partially staged here with effective lighting and Karel van Laere's costumes. The superbly gifted Bass-baritone Martin Achrainer (Kepler, the only specified character), Sadie Rosales (Soprano 1, substituting for Cassandra McConnell), Cheryl Lichter (Soprano 2), Katherina Hebelkova (Mezzo), Pedro Vaszquez Diaz (Tenor), Seho Chang (Baritone), and Florian Spiess (Bass) functioned as aspects of Kepler's often beleaguered psyche, and the 40-member Linz chorus, moved incrementally through the work.

The first 2o-or-so minutes, after a wonderfully transparent orchestral prologue with lovely chromatic figures for the strings, was pretty hard going. But then things began to progress by leaps and bounds. Kepler outlined his theories and his conflicts. He feels that heaven's not a place inhabited by "divine beings " but a "clockwork," which suits Glass' formal processes to a tee.

The chorus, operating as both character and commentator, gave Kepler heft, and vivid and enormously varied contrasts. Glass has always written superbly for massed voices. The choruses in Satyagraha (1979) are contemporary watersheds, and those here were both affecting and powerful, especially Vanitas! Vanitas!, which the full vocal ensemble sang on the lip of the stage facing the audience, with the onstage orchestra seated behind.

Those who think Glass hasn't developed from his classic 1965-1974 period -- when he invented an entirely new, from-the-ground-up language for himself -- have obviously not been listening. And the range, variety, and depth of the music here suprised the ear, delighted the mind, and touched the heart. The composer used Latin-American rhythms in several sections (particularly the Caribbean montuno) which provided tension and drama in equal measure. His command of the orchestra bore the sure mark of a master.

The sheer variety of the textures, from lean to fat, are never clotted -- even in a stunning stretch depicting the devastation both physical and psychic of The Thirty Years War, which, as the Synopsis has it "becomes a threat to all mankind" -- and couldn't be more horrific and poignant. The orchestration was apt, colorful, and expressive throughout, with Glass keeping the six percussionists and sole pianist on their toes. Languid meditative stretches, particularly those describing Kepler's love for the starry heavens, alternated with ones where Glass used opposing contrapuntal tactics (in similar and contrary motion), complex/stacked-up rhythms, and polyharmonies. There were tritones, anchors in minor thirds, and an abundance of perfect fourths and fifths in the vocal and bass lines, as in the opening section of Act 2.

One could argue till kingdom come as to whether Kepler is a "real opera " (Tosca it ain't), or an opera-oratorio like Stravinsky's Oedipus Rex (1927). But who cares when you have a work of such thrilling depth and power? It's well-known that Glass has been attracted to scientists, as in Einstein on the Beach (1976), Galileo Galilei (2001), and his evocations Stephen Hawking in both the Prologue of The Voyage (1991), the score for Morris's documentary Hawking's A Brief History of Time (1992).

But Kepler is in large part an epic mediitation on death, as in the eponymously titled ninth movement of Glass's 12-movement Symphony No. 5 (1999). Or, as the Latin chant John Barry used in The Lion in Winter (1968) puts it Media vita in morte sumus: "in the midst of life we are in death." And you can't get more serious and essential than that.

Davies and his orchestra, chorus, and soloists gave full measure. And the soloists never stinted on clarity, nuance, or dramatic projection. It was thrilling to see the justly-awarded Rosales stepping in on short notice -- score before her -- and delivering the goods bigtime. And Glass looked close to tears as he took his curtain call, though it was hard to see him through the roaring standing ovation which erupted as soon as the double basses played their completely exposed last notes.