Thursday, November 1, 2012

Einstein on the Beach at 37 / Mark Alburger

In 1973, the Philip Glass Ensemble performed at the Festival d'Autome in Paris, run by Michel Guy, who would later commission Glass's Einstein on the Beach, created with Robert Wilson.

Glass first saw Wilson's work that year at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, in one of the all-night performances of The Life and Times of Josef Stalin.  In the spring of 1974, the two artists decided to meet every Thursday for lunch, whenever they were both in New York, at an almost deserted, small restaurant on Sullivan Street.  Later they were occasionally joined by Christopher Knowles, a 14-year-old poet with some neurological impairment, who would eventually contribute texts to the project.  Wilson, always interested in famous historical figures, proposed Charlie Chaplin as the major character of a large joint project, or, alternately Adolf Hitler.  Glass countered with Mahatma Gandhi, later the portrait subject of Satyagraha.  It was Wilson's further suggestion of Albert Einstein that provided joint inspiration, as the scientist had been one of the composer's heroes in childhood.

The Wilson title in its original form was Einstein on the Beach on Wall Street, which Glass liked, and was never discussed again.  Somewhere along the line the moniker was shortened, although the composer recalls not when or why.

While neither artist had read the 1956 novel or seen the film, the opera is connected to Nevil Shute's work in an indirect manner.

The libretto was jointly conceived and created by Glass and Wilson, with an overall dramatic shape cast well before the music was written.

Since Einstein had been an amateur violinist, it was Glass's notion that the character should be playing the violin somewhere between the musicians and the group of dancers and singers.  Both artists began, and sometimes ended discussions with the question, "Is Einstein here?"  Sometimes he was, sometimes he wasn't...

Further spoken texts by Samuel M. Johnson and Lucinda Childs were incorporated, with the sung libretto of numbers and fixed-do solfege syllables reflecting the composer's study with Nadia Boulanger in Paris.

Einstein on the Beach was written for the Philip Glass Ensemble (three woodwinds [doubling saxophones, flute, and bass clarinet], two electric organs, and one solo soprano voice), solo violin, vocal soloists (soprano [from PGE] and tenor), and chorus (16 voices SATB).  The original Tomato recording featured small (vocal quartet) and large choruses (14 singers) -- a distinction not observed in the 1994 Elektra Nonesuch version.  The "naive" (i.e. non-operatic, non-vibrato) tones of the vocalists were amplified, as were the fresh, raw, sythetic sounds of the instrumentalists.

Glass's work, intended to be the official Bicentennial gift of France to America ("The U.S. . . . sent us a flag.  Can you believe it?  A flag.  And that was that"), was written from spring through fall of 1975, at a rapid Mozartean pace.  The scenes were written in order, with the exception of the connective "Knee Plays", composed at the conclusion.  Most of the music was composed between 1 and 4am in Glass's garage.

Despite the humble studio, Glass and Wilson both had impressive organizational networks, and rehearsals began five-days-a-week, increasing to six as the winter wore on.  The three-hour practices allowed equal intervals for music, dance, and staging.

The four month period barely allowed for the memorization of the almost five-hour work, a duration not revealed to the singers until well into the rehearsal process, for fear of mutiny.  Taking a cue from tablaist Alla Rakha, Glass began each practice at the beginning, reviewing previously learned material, the proceeding incrementally onward.

As in Glass's earlier minimalist works, additive and cyclic structures play central roles, to which are added cadential formulae developed in Another Look at Harmony.

The three main musical/visual references of TRAIN, TRIAL, and SPACESHIP are scattered about rationally among the four acts and five connecting KNEE PLAYS of the opera, each growing and changing.  Two DANCES splayed symmettrically at the beginning of Act II and end of Act III serve as equidistant pillars, with further referential interconnection.

The four-hour forty-minute intermissionless work, beginning even before the arrival of the audience, is an episodic, non-narrative piece.  Indeed, the composer asserted in 1987 that, "after more than fifty performances of Einstein, I have never seen the entire work straight through wihout interruption, though many people constantly assure me that they have, as it were, taken it as a 'whole.'"

After a year of preparation, Einstein on the Beach had its premiere at the Avingon Festival, France, on July 25, 1975, conducted by Michael Riesman, with violinist Bob Brown.  A program note advised that the audience could leave and return at will.

Einstein caused a sensation in its first performances, and subsequent ones in Venice, Belgrade, Brussels, Paris, Hamburg, Rotterdam, and Amsterdam, before the first American performance at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York on November 21, 1976.  Sellout audiences loathed or loved it, and some had sequential reactions.  The Times assigned its theatre critics Clive Barnes and Mel Gusnow to cover the event.

Despite the success du scandale, Glass returned to driving a taxi, as he had during most of the decade thus far.  Shortly after the Met premiere, a society woman got into his cab and, seeing his name and picture displayed (as required by New York law), announced, "Young man, do you realize you have the same name as a very famous composer?"

The artistic collaborators, who bankrolled Einstein, lost about $100,000 on the production.  Later Glass would be able to let other people do the producing, and get a composer's royalty.

Einstein on the Beach was revived in December 1984 at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, with staging by Harvey Lichtenstein.  As in the premiere, Lucinda Childs, Robert Wilson pupil Sheryl S. Sutton, and Samuel M. Johnson portrayed the primary characters.  Video documentation, which appeared on public television subtitled as The Changing Image of Opera, provided a model for future interpretations, including Achim Freyer's Stuttgart State Opera prodution in 1988 (following the director's 1984 premiere of Akhnaten) in an abstract style, with new spoken texts from the early 20th century, at the Stuttgart State Opera.  This version was also conducted by Michael Riesman.  Freyer also went on to mount all three "portrait" operas (Einstein, Satyagraha, Akhnaten) on three consecutive nights in January of 1990.

A 1992 revival included the participation of Wilson, Glass and Childs at McCarter Theater, Princeton University, and subsequently went to Frankfurt, Melbourne, Barcelona, Madrid, Tokyo, Brooklyn

The team that had organized an abortive New York City Opera production in 2009 put together another effort to remount the work in 2011, and, after a month of rehearsals overseen by Glass, Wilson and Childs, the first performance in 20 years took place on January 20, 2012, in the Power Center, at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, with two additional performances directly following.

Kate Moran and Helga Davis appeared in the Childs and Sutton roles, and violinist Jennifer Koh played the role of Einstein in the preview and alternated with Antoine Silverman the performances.

The tour schedule followed as:

March 16

OpĂ©ra et Orchestre National de Montpellier Languedoc-Roussillon, Opera Berlioz Le Corum, Montpellier, France.  Through March 18.

March 24

Teatro Valli, Reggio Emilia, Italy.  Repeated March 25.

May 4

Barbican Theatre, London, United Kingdom.  Through May 13.

June 8

Toronto Festival of Arts and Creativity, Sony Centre for the Performing Arts, Toronto, CA.  Through June 10.

September 14

Brooklyn Academy of Music Opera House, Brooklyn, NY.  Through September 23.  

October 26

Cal Performances University of California, Zellerbach Hall, Berkeley, CA.  Through October 28

With upcoming performances including:

November 9

The National Institute of Fine Arts, Teatro del Palacio de Bellas Artes, Mexico City, Mexico.  Through November 11.

January 5, 2013

De Nederlandse Opera / The Amsterdam Music Theatre, Het Muziektheater. Amsterdam, Netherlands.  Through January 12

March 8

Hong Kong Arts Festival, Hong Kong Cultural Centre Grand Theatre, Hong Kong, China.  Through March 10

Two recordings have been issued.  The first, Einstein on the Beach, as performed by the Philip Glass Ensemble, conducted by Michael Riesman, with Paul Zukovsky violin (Tomato, 1979), has become somewhat of a collector's item since its reissue by CBS Masterworks / Sony Classical.  Due to the threat of a lawsuit, CBS was obliged to change Robert Palmer's orignal liner notes.  Lucinda Childs, Sheryl Sutton, Paul Mann, and Samuel M. Johnson perform the opera's texts, with Iris Hiskey taking the soprano solo role.  This original recording was held to 160 minutes in order to fit onto four LP's, and utilizes "paired overdubbings," where alternate measures are recorded on alternated tracks and then mixed totether for a continuous sound.  Engineer Kurt Munkacsi and Glass first made use of this technique in Northstar (1977)

The second, Einstein on the Beach, perfomed by the Philip Glass Ensemble, conducted by Michael Riesman, with Gregory Fulkerson, violin, Elektra-Nonesuch (1993), is a radical departure from the first album's radical departure.  Its duration is 190 minutes, thanks to compact disc technology.  Michael Riesman conducted both recordings.   Childs and Sutton repeated their roles, while Jasper McGruder replaced the late Mr. Johnson's role, and Jeremy Montemarano voiced "The Boy".  Most of the participants in the Nonesuch recording had performed in Einstein on the Beach during its 1992 world tour.

A 77-minute "highlights" CD from the 1984 Brooklyn Academy of Music performances, accompanied by a DVD documentary, was released by Philip Glass's personal label Orange Mountain Music in early September 2012, and a complete recording, 217 minutes long, was released as a download from the iTunes Store.

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