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S & H Concert Review

Philip Glass, Orion (UK Premiere), International Soloists, Philip Glass Ensemble; Barbican Hall, 14th June 2004 (AR)


Philip Glass said of his Orion, commissioned for the
2004 Athens Cultural Olympiad’: "It seems that almost every civilization has created myths and taken inspiration from Orion. In this way the starry heavens, seen from all over our planet, will inspire us in making and presenting a truly multi-cultural, international musical work."

Philip Glass recently brought his collaborative ensemble to Greece for the world premiere of Orion at the Cultural Olympics on June 3rd at the Herod Atticus Theatre in Athens as part of the build up to the Olympic Games due to kick-off this August.

Glass and his colleagues have created for us a lightening world tour of music, juxtaposing sounds we would otherwise never hear together, uniting musical instruments from Africa, Australia, Brazil, Canada, China, Greece and India to play with him in a seven-movement piece which gave each soloist the chance to shine.

The diverse and poetic playing of the soloists was of a far higher standard than the actual music composed, which is akin to New Age music. The repetition of minimalist motifs ad nausiam induced a kind of hypnotic torpor in the by now typical Glassy manner. So, nothing new there then. What made this an evening of inspired music making was the ensemble of internationally renowned soloists who displayed an easy rapport with each other, devoid of ego clashing.

While there were three electronic keyboards – with a youthful looking 67 year-old Glass on one of them – there was little distinction between them – if any. Michael Iesman, also on keyboards, directed his forces with economy and precision.

There were three interludes consisting of duets by three pairs of guest artists. The first soloist, Mark Atkins, part Irish, part Aborigine, from Australia, played his elephant trunk-like didjeridoo with a sombre reserve, producing primordial basso profundo moans and groans. By contrast, Wu Man from China, playing the pipa, had a crystalline sharpness, sounding like a delicate hybrid between lyre and lute. Her sensitive solo sessions were the shining light of the evening. Glass’ intention of celebrating the diversity of world sounds was perfectly illustrated when Wu Man played a duet with Atkins: the two totally diverse instruments harmonised incredibly well: who would have thought that the continuo mooings of the didjeridoo would complement so well the subtle delicacy of the pipa?

Kilted fiddler Ashley MacIsaac from Nova Scotia played folk violin which sounded vinegary, reminding one of the steel string fiddle of an orchestrion, which didn’t really blend in with the mesmerising moods of the other soloists. Foday Musa Suso walked slowly and gracefully on to the stage while playing his beautifully decorated kora. He also played a single string bowed horsehair instrument called a nyanyer which produced rather harsh scraping sounds.

The group UAKTI - the boys from Brazil - brought a touch of Rio carnival to the proceedings, banging and blowing on assorted bric-a brac including drainpipes and radiators. One of their number, Artur Andres Riberio, on flute, piccolo and alto flute, made graceful movements whilst playing a duet with India’s Gaurav Mazumdar on sitar. For his solo Mazumdar played a Ravi Shankar-Phillip Glass joint composition with great sensitivity and refinement.

The finale was akin to the Eurovision Song Contest with the soignée Eleftheria Arvanitaki singing a song from her Greek homeland, with a dark and throaty voice. As she sang she watched her fellow musicians intently, as if with a sense of awe, blending her voice with her fellow instrumentalists who joined her in turn. It was a pity her vocal talents were left right to the end of this amorphous work.

Whilst there was nothing innovatory regarding Orion what was fascinating was to hear such a diverse range of instruments played together by outstanding soloists. The staging was enhanced by the sensitive use of subtle light changes lending emphasis to the varying moods of the music

As the music ended the entire audience rose to their feet in enthusiastic response to an evening of world-wide music.

Alex Russell


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