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Philip Glass Concert Review

By Cary Wong

Orion: The Concert ****


Brooklyn Academy of Music

October 6, 2005

In Greek mythology, Orion was a mighty hunter who boasted he was the ruler of all animals on earth. In the constellations, his belt is the most visible and recognizable from both the northern and southern hemispheres. These facts may not relate directly to the Philip Glass piece that bears its name, but they do give the piece depth and resonance. This concert work was created for the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens, where it played to great acclaim at its premiere at a concert space right outside the Acropolis. What makes this piece different than most others by Glass is that he is here collaborating not with a lyricist or director, but with other musicians. This challenge has produced what will probably turn out to be his most accessible work to date.

Not that he's working with Mariah Carey or Justin Timberlake, mind you. He has decided to take the Olympic theme of cultures coming together into one arena to heart and has invited seven diverse musicians from different countries, incorporating indigenous instruments, an approach that makes the entire evening feel universal. The result is an Olympic event in miniature. Each artist performs a virtuoso solo turn backed by the Philip Glass ensemble, in some incidents, as astonishing as a diver doing his acrobatic feats, and in others, graceful as an equestrian presentation. While each individual competition (if you will) is exciting, the interludes between the works prove to be the most thrilling. And these pieces have nothing to do with Philip Glass. Yet, there he was, on-stage, smiling and bobbing his head during these interludes, probably enjoying the music as much as the audience and satisfied in the fact that he brought these artists together. It's the host country enjoying the fruits of his hospitality.

At the vast Opera House stage of BAM, the stage looks like any concert presentations, with only the scrim changing colors throughout the evening. The Philip Glass ensemble enter, all in black with consummate conductor and keyboardist Michael Riesman downstage right, while Mr. Glass is at his own keyboard downstage left. This is the power position since the artist all enter and exit stage left so Glass usually has some physical interaction with each artist as well, be it a handshake a bow or a nod of appreciation. The choice of black as their attire becomes apparent as each of the performers in turn appears on stage in startling and vibrant colors. The effect is striking.

Australian Mark Atkins starts the evening played the elongated didgeridoo with such force, one fears for the veins in his head. The sporting equivalent would have to weight-lifting, and not just because of Atkins' size. How one can sustain this instrument for 10 minutes is crazy, but Atkins keeps up, especially during the repetitious Glassian moments. The Aborigine flavored piece sounds closest to Glass' score to Kundun.

Wu Man, from China, has the grace of an ice dancer, but you should see the acrobatics of her bow as she plays the pipa, an instrument she has made popular in the Western world with such collaborators as Yo-Yo Ma and the Kronos Quartet. Glass respects her enough to let her have her extended solos, with an ending to her piece that's quite a spectacle.

But not to be outdone, Canadian fiddler Ashley MacIsaac, in a quilt and a wife-beater (I mean a white tank top) and a hairstyle straight out of the Bjork school of coiffure, runs a marathon with his violin. Although Canadian by birth, MacIsaac's inspiration is Celtic-flavored violin, and it is the least Glassian piece in the group. Yet, Glass' influence is unmistakable. With nods to Riverdance, this is the most accessible piece of the evening. MacIsaac plays with such speed and agility that by the end, everyone was on the edge of their seats, which MacIsaac punctuated with a couple of dance steps and a kick. Thrilling indeed.

African Foday Musa Suso played a nyanyer, a single-string violin and the effect was almost Spanish in flavor. Suso, who has collaborated with Glass before in such works as The Screens, played with an expert concentration of an archer, and even added some new-age/world music vocals to his soothing piece.

The three-man relay team of UAKTI from Brazil created the closest to the Glass sound with their mix of percussion and flute. The unique sound of their instruments, however, didn't make much of an impression with this hypnotic and even-keeled piece after the show-offy nature of the previous artist. Still, watching them go from instrument to instrument was part of the fun of their contribution. As the piece reached its Blue Man-esque finale, I admired the intensity of the entire ensemble.

India's Gaurav Mazumdar sat on the floor of a platform and played his sitar with the skill and speed of a ping pong player. Moving his hand quickly across the sitar and playing the Ravi Shankar-penned composition was quite a joy to watch. It made me appreciate the skill of a sitar player, though the instrument was never one of my favorites.

To end the evening, Grecian singer Eleftheria Arvanitaki sang a folk song based on a Greek poem, which at first listen was hard to grasp with its non-Western inflictions. But each soloist returns after each repetition, building on it every time, until the stage is filled with people dressed in vibrant colors and playing instruments seldom seen in tandem in a traditional orchestra. This finale was probably more emotional to a Greek audience, but it was still extremely moving to the jaded New Yorkers in the audience.

And to add to the joy of the evening, there were also interludes between certain pieces where two soloists came together to create a duo piece no longer than five minutes in length, and embodying the Olympian spirit of brotherhood that crosses all man-made borders. Especially playful was the UAKTI/Gaurav Mazumdar pairing, which started with an odd spinning cylindrical instrument that two of the UAKTI guys manipulated. Simply amazing.

I'm not sure how many more times this particular ensemble will be able to tour together. Future concerts may only have a portion of the soloists, or maybe even none at all. This is a shame since this group works well together, and they all seem to respect each other's differences. Orange Mountain Music released a concert version CD with this touring cast of musicians, and although it gives a good taste to what made the concert enjoyable, the visual and visceral power of the live concert is lost in the audio alone. It's the actual physical presence of the performers that bring cohesion to this eclectic piece, which doesn't connect as well on CD.

This year's Next Wave festival at the Brooklyn Academy of Music included many interesting and inventive works, including the world premiere of Philip Glass' Symphony No. 8, actress Isabelle Huppert in British playwright Sarah Kane's last work before her suicide, 4.48 Psychosis, and a ballet version of Zhang Yimou's film, Raise the Red Lantern, directed by the Zhang himself and presented by the National Ballet of China, for which I will have an upcoming review.

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