Saturday, July 18, 2009

Philip Glass: Appomattox

Philip Glass? Minimalist! The word association is quick and easy, and yet, far from correct. The music of Glass varies across many forms: film, concerto, solo piano, string quartet, symphony, opera, popular song. And there are great differences within each of these, so Akhenaten differs from Einstein on the Beach, Mishima from Anima Mundi, “Streets of Berlin” (Bent) from “Freezing” (Liquid Days). The term Minimalist is reductive, often failing to acknowledge the macrocosmic scope of Glass’s music.

Last week, Leeds saw the European premier of Glass’s latest opera, Appomattox, a production that raised some interesting questions about interpretations of Glass. The scale of Glass’s music is most obvious within his operas: expansive sets, themes, cadences and singers. When Appomattox received its world premiere in San Francisco (2007), the opera was true to form: imposing. The Leeds version, staged at the Carriageworks, occurred on a smaller stage, yet the performance still resonated. Also, the Leeds version, sung by Leeds Youth Opera, was placed in the hands of young singers and actors. This could have been uncomfortable: weighty roles hung on thin frames to the point of collapse. Yet, this was not at all what happened. In the hands and voices of younger performers, Appomattox achieved an unexpected poignancy and vulnerability: the soldiers who died in the American Civil War… as in wars since, were young men…and the women who suffered were young too. The Leeds Appomattox wasn’t Glass in Lilliput, rather a revealing of the gap between grand ideas, such as freedom, that cause war, and the humbling pains endured by those who fight.

The Leeds Evening News reviewed Appomattox in a predictable manner. It celebrated the achievements of Leeds Youth Opera whilst finding the opera “musically uninteresting”. That verdict sells both Glass and the Youth Opera short. If the reviewer has listened to the score, with all its shifts and echoes, and known the Glass repertoire, he would have had a better idea of what this young opera group in fact achieved. Appomattox took a grand historical sweep from the ending of the American Civil War, through the Civil Rights Movement, into the current political world of Barack Obama. The Glass score skilfully changed with history, creating the ground for inventive staging. The opening, serene in sound, simple in mood, with little action beyond female figures wandering in and out of silent male bodies, had the depth of Greek Tragedy. The moment when Lee and Grant exchanged correspondence, in search of peace, using simple musical idioms to carry humility and emotion, was thrilling. The music performed as well as the actor-singers. The music throughout had a chameleon quality to it, absorbing popular song ("Tenting") and Biblical phraseology "(Psalm 47"), finding the right style for the right moment. There was one chilling moment, when the electrocution of the racist Edgar Ray Killen, exploded with the rasping, devilish percussion of “Moloch”, from Hydrogen Jukebox.

The European premier of Appomattox wasn’t perfect: there were occasional moments when singing and orchestration were not synchronised. But the evening was a perfect example of what art is about: invention, expression, and expansion. The orchestra brought a demanding score to life, with some sterling performances from the percussion and keyboard section: Linda Hinchliffe. Jonathan Wilby brought depth and statesmanship to Ulyssees Grant. Joe Thompson showed great stage presence, with an ability to sing and act in unison—to communicate cynicism and warmth. It was exciting to see such sparkle, also to see such commitment and challenge from a whole company. In truth, Leeds Youth Opera did justice to an extremely interesting musical score, and showed themselves equal to the piece. Bravo! Appomattox, with its detailed attention to history, represents American opera at its height; Leeds Youth Opera , with their enthusiasm, music at its best.