glass notes
“Issues Arise,” and it has nothing to do with Philip Glass



A couple of things transpired over the weekend which got me thinking about the supposed attempt at objectivity in reviewing concerts.  The first thing was a review by Variety from 1993 of Tim Burton’s The Nightmare before Christmas.  Variety seemed very proud, and rightly so, to have identified a brilliant piece of work at the moment of its release.  So when you get it right you should be proud.  When you get it wrong, apparently you are able to develop strategies for dealing with that little problem.

One phenomenon we see often when reviewing Glass is that writers who are are extreme pains to say anything nice about the music.  They contort themselves into bizarre intellectual positions to say all sorts of things about elements having to do with the Glass work, but dance around avoiding having to say anything nice about Glass’s music.  For example, I recall one reviewer saying in a major American magazine that he didn’t think much of Glass as a composer, but that he thought of Glass as a great man of the theater.  This statement woudn’t seem so problematic if the piece that was being reviewed had not been a piece of theater.

Another example is when the New York Times reviewed the premiere performances of Orphée in 1993.

“the music spins its wheels without providing perspective. It seems to look at everything either with light-hearted satire or other ominous anticipation. The singing is not heightened speech, just pitched speech. The opera cannot match the film’s queasy dream quality…Mr. Glass has in the past been drawn to the interpenetration of universes, to the ways in which the timeless mixes with the mundane. …the music didn’t help; it seemed uncertain about its real subject, which like Cocteau’s, was not the sacrifice demanded by art, but the lure of forbidden desire.”

The same reviewer 14 years later:

“In 2007 at the Glimmerglass Opera I heard “Orphée” again, this time in a modern, sleek production by Sam Helfrich, with the conductor Anne Manson drawing an urgent and nuanced account of the score from the excellent orchestra and a compelling cast. This time, 14 years after my first hearing, I was swept away by “Orphée.” I have come to consider it among Mr. Glass’s most inspired works.”

What happened?  Same reviewer. Same opera. It’s hard to ignore the existence of some sort of suggestion that the music had been changed when in fact it was the critic himself changed;  Glass’s musical notes on the page remained unaltered in the intervening years. But the world view of the critic had been transformed in that period.  The fact that you like it today but not yesterday has more to do with you than it has to do with Glass.  Not admitting that is embarrassing for this reader.  New productions of Wagner happen every month – we hardly ever judge Wagner by the sins or successes of the production designers and directors nowadays, no should we. Wagner’s musical notes on the page are what they are and the public’s consistent interest in his music is really the only standard that matters.

I found myself as equally confused by yesterday’s review in the Los Angeles Times of Glass’s 17 year old score for the 1931 film Dracula “Dracula Meets Philip Glass and Kronos Quartet, and Issues Arise.”  Glass, Kronos Quartet and Michael Riesman performed a number of sold out shows in Los Angeles over the weekend and coinciding with Halloween – there was a buzz in the air and the shows were tremendously exciting for the appreciative audience.

Dracula has been a huge success wherever it’s played now for almost two decades.  I first saw this version in the year 2000 at Boston’s Orpheum theater.  The ovation then, as it was this past weekend, was as raucous as a rock concert.  Glass’s score is widely available on recording in its original form, Riesman and Levingston’s solo piano recordings, and recently a new reading for string quartet by the Carducci Quartet – not to mention it can also be heard on the commercially available DVD from Universal so you can watch the film with or without Glass’ music.

For me, after experiencing Dracula with Glass’s music, it became nearly impossible to watch the film without. But in general, it has to be acknowledged after nearly two decades that this piece of work is here to stay.  Sold out concerts are one thing.  Successful sales of records are another measure of success. But more than anything, such intense interest in the piece over a long period of time is very much a measure of quality.  I’m not sure what the reviewer thought he was going to hear/see, but I’m not sure what that has to do with the rest of us.

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