Recycled Glass

Too many notes: Soprano Lauren Flanigan in Philip Glass's verbally dense (and vocally taxing) Symphony No. 6.

Ever since he rode to fame on the back of Robert Wilson’s Einstein on the Beach in 1976, Philip Glass has chosen his collaborators with care, no doubt sensing that a provocative partner’s input is vital to the success of his projects. And he has enticed many into his net over the years, a varied group that includes Doris Lessing, David Bowie, and Henry David Hwang, as well as those with no say in the matter, like Jean Cocteau, Edgar Allan Poe, and Dracula. In fact, if posterity decides to remember any of these extravaganzas, it will probably be due more to clever packaging and mixing of media than to any innate musical quality. That especially applies to Glass’s works of the past decade, which (as even his admirers will admit) tend to recycle old ideas.

That trend continues. To celebrate Glass’s 65th birthday, Dennis Russell Davies led the American Composers Orchestra in two recent collaborative efforts in Carnegie Hall: Passages, based on themes by Ravi Shankar, and the world premiere of Symphony No. 6, a 45-minute musical setting, for soprano and orchestra, of Allen Ginsberg’s “Plutonian Ode.” A lot of glassy-eyed fans were on hand to give the composer an ovation, but others hoping for something fresh were disappointed. It was pretty much business as usual: the same simpleminded syncopations and jigging ostinatos, the same inane little tunes on their way to nowhere, the same clumsily managed orchestral climaxes.

Future performances of the Sixth Symphony are likely to be limited by the score’s punishing demands on the soloist. Glass has always written ineffectively for the voice, and here he has concocted a vocal line that keeps the soprano struggling at the uppermost limits of her range, shouting out reams of dense verbiage that only a Virgil Thomson might have set to music gracefully. Under the circumstances it wasn’t entirely Lauren Flanigan’s fault that not a word could be understood or that her voice threatened to collapse under the strain. Totally committed to the task and looking like a crazed punk diva, Flanigan gave her usual fearless performance as she stormed through this tiresome, aging hippie rant. It was definitely a tour de force, but surely there are better uses for this remarkable singer’s talents.

Concert opera at the New York Philharmonic? Yes, it does sometimes happen, and not long ago Kurt Masur conducted a big chunk of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde at Avery Fisher Hall: the complete second act, preceded by the Prelude to Act I and followed by the Prelude and Liebestod from Act III. The results were mixed. On the one hand, any fresh approach to Wagner is a welcome alternative to James Levine, who has had a virtual monopoly on his operas at the Met for a generation. That said, I had hoped for more from Masur, who gave a very cautious account of a score that should never sound merely pleasant and efficiently stitched together, which was pretty much the case here. Perhaps an incandescent performance of Wagner’s steamy love music is asking too much of a conductor so soon after major surgery and a successful kidney transplant, although Masur is looking fit and the orchestra seemed glad to have him back.

This was Deborah Voigt’s first crack at Isolde – the soprano will sing the complete role in Vienna in 2003 – and it is already an impressive vocal achievement. Her voice is firm, securely placed, and evenly produced from top to bottom, and she phrases with care and musical distinction. Nothing very specific seems to be going on behind the notes right now, and I suspect that even if Voigt eventually does dig deeper into the role, this Isolde is likely to remain more a musical phenomenon than a dramatic revelation. Other than Violeta Urmana’s eloquent Brangäne, there was not much else to enjoy. Stig Andersen’s husky tenor began to flag early on, while it is rather late in the day to expect Theo Adam, at 75, to give an adequate vocal account of King Marke’s long monologue.

Philip Glass
Passages and Symphony No. 6, performed by the American Composers Orchestra at Carnegie Hall.

Tristan und Isolde
Selections from the Wagner opera performed by Deborah Voigt with the New York Philharmonic at Avery Fisher Hall.

Recycled Glass