Tuesday, March 5, 2013

I Want to Hear the Invisible: The Collegiate Chorale Sings Glass and Golijov


By Mary Sheeran            

Melody that begins, soars, and resolves has become hard to find. Relentless, driving rhythms pound at us in restaurants and gyms. And in the world of (so-called) contemporary classical music, melody has given way to explorations of tonality and rhythm, of non-western music, and other journeys where, if the word “melodic” should appear, it is usually preceded by the word “unabashedly,” as if one should be abashed.

Minimalism emerged in music (notably by Steve Reich, John Adams, and Philip Glass) almost by necessity, as if composers were trying to find out where they were in all this, a search within a search. Although many feel that minimalist music merely adds to the noise and the driving rhythm, or think it is a boring reduction, it is rather a quest for the essential, or rather, the removal of anything that is not essential. Like moving from a three-story house to a New York apartment and figuring what to keep and what to toss.  Such tossing can hurt and unsettle.

In terms of spirituality (and music belongs in that realm), the process is a much more potent journey – an attempt to eliminate all but the very basics of flesh and spirit to discover a spiritual wholeness and a new way to see. This is one aim of chant, which one might call minimalist, or rather, minimalizing. Philip Glass’s work relies on chant, even if on the surface it seems that he only contributes to the noise of the world. Actually, he is working to get beyond it, and like chant, that can provide a spiritual experience. It means work, though.            

That was evident during a concert at Carnegie Hall last week with the Collegiate Chorale, which, under the capable direction of James Bagwell, presented Philip Glass’s Symphony No. 7 – A Toltec Symphony and Osvaldo Golijov’s Oceana. Both pieces are strong, dramatic, and feature interesting combinations of instruments and voices. Both were inspired by Latin American themes.            

The National Symphony Orchestra commissioned the piece to honor conductor Leonard Slatkin on his 60th birthday. In fact, Slatkin did the inviting, noting mischievously that he was happy to offer the commission to “someone who, at one time, I really hated.” He had earlier found Glass’s music boring.             Glass was inspired early on by the late Indian musician Ravi Shankar’s use of rhythm as structure, and his music is, well, unabashedly rhythmic. It often requires another human layer beyond instrumentality to deepen its dimensions and bring its richness to the forefront. This is best exemplified by Jerome Robbins’ brilliant ballet, Glass Pieces, where Robbins not only brings the music’s rhythm and phrasing to an exciting level, but deepens it with dancers’ soaring arcs and then, when the music becomes profoundly intimate, expands it by bringing in a haunting rhythm with dancers in shadow. Robbins’ choreography brings out the spiritual qualities of Glass’s music that, superficially heard, could irritate the listener (as it obviously had irritated Slatkin at first).            

Glass claims that, for his seventh symphony, he drew on Mesoamerican themes from the Toltec culture, which reached its height between the years 700 and 1100, but is still in some ways alive today. The work is divided into three movements: The Corn, The Sacred Earth, and The Blue Deer (outlining a progression from the gifts of Mother Earth to the doorway to the Spirit and then to the human visions of the spiritual world).

His first movement is richly textured, starts slowly and haltingly, then builds in intensity and texture until the signature Glass rhythm appears. The movement ends quietly, but it has taken us to an expectant place.

As if the orchestra were no longer enough, the second movement brings in another dimension: Glass incorporates a wordless chant (rather words that have no sense) and uses the chorus to add to the urgency of the musical pulse that intensifies it even more. Program notes tell us this was a chant Glass had transcribed from “a 90-year-old Mexican man chanting in the desert, singing to a plant or something.” Glass’s second movement is mesmerizing, but it is the words that are not words, combined with the music, combined with the singers, and combined with whatever level of spiritual maturity listeners can bring to it that make this a beautiful piece and not irritating noise. (You can listen to the second movement here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fRK3QS9zoEY)

The third movement begins quietly with more stopping and starting over than one would want to feel after the first two. We westerners, after we’ve explored something, we expect to get somewhere! In fact, we arrive at another place of tension. Glass signals that clearly. If the third movement sounds like movie music in spots, that’s because it is. It’s a reworking of Glass’ music for "Powaggatsi," a Hopi word meaning a life in transition. That film focused on the conflict in underdeveloped countries between tradition and industrialization. The peace of the movement contains an underlying tension, and the journey ends like most: Did you find what you wanted to find or do we have to start out again?

I don’t know exactly how the Toltecs figure into this. One could probably make a case for each of the movements in the Toltec terms outlined in the program notes, but the whole idea could be an affectation, or perhaps it’s a hook Glass uses to illustrate the journey his music must inevitably generate for the listener. Glass’s music cannot exist with just Glass alone. It needs you.

The opening of Golijov’s Oceana led to a place that will not come back, at least, that’s what I wrote in my notes. The harp took center stage, and the work also featured guitars, rainsticks, a small chorus of women, the larger choir, the full orchestra – and oh, yes, a jazz singer. 

Golijov, who draws on a background that combines Argentina, Israel, and the United States, wrote this sprawling piece for the Oregon Bach Festival in 1996.  For it, he selected a poem from Cantos Ceremonial by the Nobel Prize winner Pablo Neruda of Chile. Golijov called Neruda the Latin American Bach – and the argument goes that both Golijov and Neruda transform passion into geometry. I’m not sure that’s right, about Bach anyway, but it’s an idea. Golijov took a deconstructing poetic text and deconstructed it further, passing sentence fragments, words, syllables, and sounds from chorus, chamber choir, and soloist. This could have led to a dizzying experience, but what holds it together and keeps us from getting lost, is the commanding authority of the jazz soloist, in this case, Bella da Costa. She took all those partials and threaded them together, transforming the geometry back into passion and accomplishing what Neruda (translated here) wrote: “I want to hear the invisible…Give me the secret wine contained in each syllable." Another spiritual search, brought intensively and beautifully, home.

“I want to hear the invisible.” That probably sums up the intent of this concert and these pieces. James Bagwell kept all these disparate elements under control, and the chorus even in its wordless chanting, performed precisely and accurately, not that easy with the ever-changing time signatures. One could have wished for one more short piece to have linked these two, letting the audience sit back a bit, but even without that, it was a most successful evening for the Collegiate Chorale.

The Collegiate Chorale, James Bagwell, Music Director, presenting Symphony No. 7 – A Toltec Symphony by Philip Glass and Oceana by Osvaldo Golijov. With Bella da Costa, Vocalist; Manhattan Girls Chorus; The Collegiate Chorale; and the American Symphony Orchestra. James Bagwell, Conductor. At Carnegie Hall, Feb. 27.

Mary Sheeran is a singer, editor, and the author of the novels Quest of the Sleeping Princess and Who Have the Power. Her CD, Through the Years, is available on CD Baby.

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