Philip Glass Orion

Orion [UK premiere]

In collaboration with Mark Atkins, Ashley MacIsaac, Wu Man, Ravi Shankar, Foday Musa Suso, and UAKTI

Philip Glass (keyboards)

The Philip Glass Ensemble
Michael Riesman

Mark Atkins (didjeridoo)
Wu Man (pipa)
Ashley MacIsaac (violin)
Foday Musa Suso (kora & nyanyer)
Gaurav Mazumdar (sitar)
Eleftheria Arvanitaki (vocalist)
UAKTI [Artur Andres Ribeiro (flute); Paulo Sergio Dos Santos & Decio De Souza Ramos Filho (percussion)]

Reviewed by: Timothy Ball

Reviewed: 14 June, 2004
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

Commissioned by the 2004 Cultural Olympiad, Philip Glass’s new work Orion received its first performance on 3 June at the Herod Atticus Theatre in Athens.

This multi-cultural work was created in collaboration with a number of musicians from around the world. What was not completely clear, from the fairly limited information provided by way of a programme note, was to what extent these artists had contributed to the compositional process. I suspect – though this is pure conjecture on my part – that Glass had provided a framework over which the indigenous contribution had been added.

There also seemed to be some elements of improvisation, especially in a number of cadenza-like passages for the soloists – either alone or in ensemble – which fell between the main sections of the work.

Orion consists of seven self-contained parts (presumably each can be performed separately), each featuring Glass’s ensemble and a different ethnic instrument or group. The sound of the didjeridoo was the first to be heard, with deep drones – later a variety of ululation – joined by the characteristic Glass sound of scales, arpeggios, undulating figuration and a high-lying vocalise.

I thought initially that we were just going to experience the ‘normal’ Philip Glass supplemented by exotica, but the whole work proved much more diverse than has sometimes been the case in Glass’s more recent creations. This Australian section (and I should be curious to experience Glass’s Concerto for organ and didjeridoo, also written for Mark Atkins) was quite dark, with more than a hint of foreboding; eventually the relentless rhythm suggested a kind of sinister march. A brief unaccompanied duet for pipa and didjeridoo formed a link to the next section, featuring Wu Man on that traditional Chinese instrument. She is an engaging performer, clearly relishing eliciting the Glass sound from the pipa (a plucked string instrument), and the contrast between ancient and modern sonorities was most effective.

Ashley MacIsaac (from Canada) then delivered a quasi-Scottish pastiche starting with a reflective lullaby winningly scored for a trio of violin, piano and voice. This led to a reel-like passage that suddenly transformed itself into a species of hoe-down, which was great fun, especially when MacIsaac, sporting a kilt, started to dance about and stamp his feet.

More thoughtful music followed – again bridged by a duet – from Foday Musa Suso playing principally the kora, a large mandolin-like instrument from The Gambia. His plucked sounds – contrasted with those synthesised on keyboards – suggested an almost Steve Reich-like delicacy, which is most rare in Glass whose rhythmic writing has been invariably more insistent than that of his contemporary and counterpart. Rather touchingly, this music turned into a song, the meaning of which, sadly, was obscure, as there was no text or information provided about its provenance. Its melody was quite haunting, however.

The Brazilian group UAKTI launched its section with tintinnabulation from what appeared to be a species of metalophone and suggested some Gamelan influences. This group (Glass has previously collaborated with its members on a ballet) plays a variety of instruments including some invented and specially constructed percussion. Artur Andres Ribeiro playing flute, later piccolo and alto flute, made a distinctive contribution here, as did Gaurav Mazumdar with virtuoso roulades on the sitar in a piece credited as being a joint composition between Ravi Shankar and Philip Glass. This was most exciting, and seemingly encompassed the whole vocabulary of minimalist devices, accompanied by some intricate drumming that increased in intensity until a sudden and dramatic cut-off.

The finale centred around a traditional Greek song, sung alluringly by Eleftheria Arvanitaki in what I suppose might be termed a ‘pop’ style, in which all the instrumentalists joined in turn, culminating in a truly international conglomeration. Just before the final stanza, a unison a cappella passage was an unexpected occurrence, as was a ‘warning note’ from the didjeridoo which preceded the final tutti chord.

On the whole, Orion was a thoroughly enjoyable and interesting experience. What was not clear was the connection between title and music. This was music very much rooted in the Earth, stemming directly from the various cultures represented. Unlike, say, Stockhausen’s Sternklang or Sirius – music very much of an extra-terrestrial character – Orion seemed to celebrate this planet rather than what might lie beyond it.

In any event, this performance received an instantaneous ovation, and whatever one may think about it, Philip Glass’s music does have an ability to generate a ready response. Orion is certainly an enlightening initiative undertaken by the Greek authorities in celebration of the forthcoming Olympics and one wonders whether an internationally renowned composer would be commissioned if the Olympics were to be held in London in 2012.

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