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Philip GLASS (b.1937)
Waiting for the Barbarians (2005)
Magistrate - Richard Salter; Colonel Joll - Eugene Perry; Warrant Officer Mandel - Michael Tews; Barbarian Girl - Elvira Soukop; Cook - Kelly God; Star - Marisca Mulder; Old Man - Andreas Mitschke; Guards/Soldiers - Peter Umstadt, Máté Sólyom–Nagy, Manuel Meyer; Small Girl - Grit Redlich.
Openchor des Theaters Erfurt, Philharmonisches Orchester Erfurt/Dennis Russell Davies 
rec. 10 September 2005, Theater Erfurt, DDD
ORANGE MOUNTAIN MUSIC OMM0039 [72:10 + 61:32]
Experience Classicsonline

I remember sitting in the Coliseum in 1985 or 1986 attending the première British production of Glass’s Akhnaten. I could not help wondering, as the music unfolded in very obvious paragraphs, where was the exciting composer of Strung Out (1967), Music in Fifths and Music in Similar Motion (both 1969), not to mention the magnificent Einstein On The Beach (1975/1976), the fairly recently released LP called Glassworks, or the superb film score Koyaanisqatsi (1981/1983). As the opera unfolded over some three hours a growing sense of ennui crept over me as I found that whilst some of the various sections were quite stunning, the parts simply didn’t make a satisfying whole. The ever repeating broken triads, which had seemed so exciting in the pieces mentioned above, became stale and clichéd as the violas plodded on and on in the same way – seemingly without break. As we left the theatre we reached the exit door which was closed, and, as I was at the front, with a sizeable crowd behind me, eager to get out, I shouted, “it’s locked, there’s another bloody act!” and loud screams were audible. Whilst I am sure that there were other reasons for the screams – not being able to get out, what if there is a fire etc – the audience was less than enthusiastic at the prospect of having to sit through more of the very same. And I can well understand that feeling.
 
Since then I have been disappointed with almost everything I have heard by Glass, The Light (1987), the Saxophone Quartet Concerto (1995), the later Quartets, but the Violin Concerto did impress. It’s easy to understand my dissatisfaction with Glass’s work. It seems that he hasn’t had anything new to say for some time. His musical language is very limited and as a composer he hasn’t really progressed. 
 
So what of this recent opera? Based on a novel by J M Coetzee, and with a libretto by Christopher Hampton, it tells of a civil servant who runs a tiny frontier garrison town, who ignores the threat of war with the “barbarians”, a tribe of nomads. He witnesses the torture and cruel and illegal treatment of prisoners and starts to display sympathy with them. He is branded a traitor and becomes the victim of public disapprobation and torture.
 
With the usual, well known, accompaniment, Glass fills over two hours with gestures and music which are too well known to us to be excitingly interesting. The vocal lines exist above a continuous flow of the usual kind of music Glass writes, slow or medium paced, fairly static. It’s all so dull. Then, about half way through the second disk – the Prologue to Scene 4 – there’s some very exciting drumming. The tempo speeds up and things start to move. But it’s short-lived and we’re back where we were before we’ve had time to really enjoy the change in pace.
 
For me, this work is a disappointment for it fails to do the things which make music interesting. Where are the obvious things such as a beginning, a middle and an end, a sense of logical progression from start to finish, harmonies and melodies which are, if not freshly minted, then take a new look at established forms. But who am I to say these things? Die–hard Glass fans will gobble this stuff up and enthuse loudly about how their hero is pushing back the boundaries of opera and music theatre. I shall return to my old Chatham Square LP of Music in Fifths and Music in Similar Motion and lament that Glass could have led the world in composition, with the elemental and vital pieces written for his own group.
 
The recording is of a live performance and I am sure that the performances are very good – with Russell Davies in charge it’s impossible for them not to be. However the bottom line is do we really care? I am afraid that I don’t because I’ve heard it all before.
 
Bob Briggs
 

 


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