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Philip GLASS (b. 1937)
Orion (2004)
Eleftheria Arvanitaki (vocalist)
Mark Atkins (didgeridoo)
Ashley Macisaac (violin)
Wu Man (pipa)
Gaurav Mazumdar (sitar)
Ravi Shankar (composition for sitar)
Foday Musa Suso (kora)
UAKTI (multi-instrumentalists)
Philip Glass Ensemble/Michael Riesman
Rec. June 2004, Odeon of Herodes Atticus, Athens.


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Orion was created specifically for performance as part of the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens. The multinational character of such an event is reflected in the concept: a showcase for the excellent musicianship of artists and ensembles with whom Glass has previously worked.

Fans of Glass may initially find that they are more than a little disorientated by the ethnic nature of much of this music, behind which his personal voice is sometimes entirely hidden. Persevere, and you will either warm to the cross-over nature of the music, or find yourself reaching for ‘Akhnaten’ or ‘Songs from Liquid Days’ for reassurance. All of Glass’s familiar rhythmic and melodic fingerprints are here, but ethnic solo instruments plucked out of their natural element and made to front the Philip Glass Ensemble can sound a little twee at times.

Each track characterises a particular country or continent. Beginning with ‘Australia’, Mark Atkins’ delicious didgeridoo sound moulds nicely into deeply theatrical throbbing drum pulses; a combination which will no doubt find its way sooner or later onto an atmospheric film soundtrack. The single pedal note of the didgeridoo suits the PG Ensemble and Glass’s idiom down to the ground. ‘China’ begins with an expressive improvisatory introduction on the Pipa – an extension of the previous intermezzo in which this plucked instrument is joined by the didgeridoo in an effective duet. Pipa soloist Wu Man shows admirable versatility when the Glass Ensemble weighs in and she has to fall into line with a typical four-square Glass accompaniment. Despite her undoubted virtuosity she sometimes ends up sounding like an exotic banjo caught on stage at the Concertgebouw – a result of the western idiom and ‘orchestral’ backing being imposed on an instrument whose colourful variety of effects thrives more in a solo or chamber music setting. In ‘Canada’ we start slowly, and end up with a rollicking dance in which Ashley Macisaac’s Celtic fiddle comes into its own.

There are three interludes in which soloists and their respective cultures meet in a duet. ‘Canada and The Gambia’ is the best of these. Here the dance character of the fiddle is lifted free of the somewhat stodgily amplified ensemble sound by the punchy rhythmic playing of Foday Musa Suso. The ‘Gambia’ movement begins with a Lyle Mays soundalike keyboard ostinato which, spread over fifteen minutes, becomes a bit static and leaden. ‘Brazil’ is rather aimless as well, but while UAKTI’s flautist has little to get his teeth into the delightfully tactile tuned percussion has more of a chance to shine, until they’re drowned out; you just find yourself wishing that the PG Ensemble would shut up for a while. The Sitar is an instrument made so familiar from other sources that it seems less of a leap to hear it over the backing of electronic keyboards. Gaurav Mazumdar is a worthy disciple of Ravi Shankar, and floats with sometimes irrelevant ease over the bumpy-noisy Glass backing in ‘India’. The final movement, ‘Greece’, brings everyone together alongside the sultry singing of Eleftheria Arvanitaki. There are some nice harmonic twists here, and the whole thing has a sweetly lyrical pomp-pop anthem flavour I’d feel safe playing for my mother. It misses ‘hit’ quality however, and as far as I’m concerned if she likes it, she can keep it.

This is a beautifully recorded and sumptuous production which is almost self-recommending to those interested in high profile meetings between the music of the west and the rest-of-the-world. Some of it is great fun, and as ‘Gebrauchsmusik’ it was no doubt highly effective in the arena for which it was composed – it was certainly well received at the London première. The final impression is however a little like a meal cooked in a wok over too low a flame – the aromas and flavours of both Glass and his brilliant friends are tantalisingly present, but the overall result is a rather mushy and indigestible.

Dominy Clements




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