The New New Things

Illustration by Sean McCabePhoto: From left, Timothy Greenfield-Sanders/Courtesy of B.A.M.; Duncan Hannah/Courtesy of Lincoln Center

More shrewd showman than composer these days, Philip Glass has increasingly counted on high-profile collaborative talents to give his projects the texture and variety that his own limited creative imagination cannot provide. Even influential critics who hailed his real innovations 30 years ago seldom show up at his newest extravaganzas, and the audience for his latest spectacle—Orion, which opened this fall’s Next Wave Festival at the Brooklyn Academy of Music—seemed to consist mainly of hard-core fans.

For Orion, Glass invited seven musicians and composers from diverse musical traditions and cultures to participate with him in a 90-minute piece commissioned by the Cultural Olympiad and first performed in Athens as a prelude to the 2004 Summer Olympics. Glass presumably decided on the overall shape of the score and supplied some thematic material for the musicians to play around with, while his own amplified ensemble furnishes a predictable background of droning sonic washes and chugging rhythms, a familiar minimalist stew in which we’ve all sloshed about many times before.

I suppose it was clever of Glass to bring these virtuoso soloists together under one musical tent, although their talents might have registered even more forcefully had they been allowed to perform on their own. Wu Man, for instance, extracts such an amazing range of colors and dazzling technical effects from the pipa (a plucked Chinese instrument resembling a large lute) that she made all the gray doodling going on behind her sound positively irritating. So did Ashley MacIsaac, whose weird Highland-hippie getup, complete with kilt and haltered undershirt, couldn’t interfere with his awesome command of Scottish strathspey-and-reel fiddle technique. Musicians from Australia, Gambia, Brazil, Greece, and India also took part in the musical mix, joining forces at the end in a jam session that almost managed to rise above the cheesy Barnumesque concept that brought them together.

Compared to the brash public character of Orion, Ricky Ian Gordon’s Orpheus and Euridice is so intimate and private that one almost feels intrusive commenting on it. Orpheus, which recently received its world premiere in Lincoln Center’s “Great Performers” and “American Songbook” series, was written as a response to the illness and death of Gordon’s partner. All composers drawn to this Greek legend are surely in some way attracted by the bereavement, guilt, and grieving that the myth explores, not to mention the fact that Orpheus himself is the virtual embodiment of music and its power to move, heal, and restore. Gordon has clearly been stirred by all that, reshaping the basic material in original ways to make his own statement.

What began as a modest request from clarinetist Todd Palmer for a companion to Schubert’s ballad The Shepherd on the Rock eventually developed into a 70-minute theater piece that, like the Schubert song, calls for soprano, clarinet, and piano but also adds a troupe of dancers. The soprano doubles as Euridice and a narrator, Orpheus exchanges his lyre for a clarinet with no loss of musical eloquence, and eight dancers represent the Furies, blessed spirits, and, in the end, a moved audience of wondering humanity. Both Gordon’s text and music are couched in an accessible idiom of disarming lyrical directness, a cleverly disguised faux naïveté that always resolves dissonant situations with grace and a sure sense of dramatic effect—the mark of a born theater composer.

Not many new works, especially one with these unusual requirements, get such a magical first performance in which every element seems so perfectly integrated. As directed and choreographed by Doug Varone, the action is in constant movement—even the pianist (Melvin Chen) and his instrument are whirled about the stage at certain key moments. Soprano Elizabeth Futral as Euridice and Palmer as Orpheus perform their regular musical duties to maximum effect while joining in the dance without a suggestion of hesitation or awkwardness. The otherworldly nature of Allen Moyer’s gray gauze settings and Jane Greenwood’s pale costume designs couldn’t be more to the point. Orpheus and Euridice is a fragile creation, and it was lucky to be born with such tender care.

By Philip Glass.
Howard Gilman Opera House, Brooklyn Academy of Music.
October 4.

Orpheus and Euridice
By Ricky Ian Gordon.
Rose Theater, Lincoln Center.
October 5.

See also:
Q&A with Composer Ricky Ian Gordon

The New New Things