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Watch the skies

06/14/2004 -  
Philip Glass: Orion
Mark Atkins (didgeridoo), Wu Man (pipa), Ashley MacIsaac (violin), Foday Musa Suso (kora, nyanyer), Artur Andres Ribeiro (flute), Paulo Sergio Dos Santos (percussion), Decio De Souza Ramos Filho (percussion), Gaurav Mazumdar (sitar), Eleftheria Arvanitaki (vocals)

Michael Riesman (conductor)

Philip Glass Ensemble

Philip Glassís Galileo Galilei ended with a short opera Orion, a fantasy pastiche of Galileoís fatherís work that made the circling of the heavens into a charming erotic game. Glassís new work Orion, commissioned for the Olympics in Athens, is similarly as light as air, as space even, and very enjoyable. The basis of the work, Glass says in a note, is the similarities between music in different parts of the world, which is parallel to the visibility of the constellation Orion in all parts of the world. A real romantic might prefer the full moon as the shared experience, but Orionís chase across the sky suits exactly Glassís interest in generating diversity from simple means. He has gathered a suitably starry set of musicians to perform a ninety-minute programme that gives each a set in something like his or her home style, with space for three improvised duets and a finale in which all join in their own tunings.

The continuities are many: the overblown didgeridoo from Australia resonates with the flute and plumbing-related instruments of the Brazilian ensemble Uakti, whose art could be called musica povera; the sitar, pipa and Gambian nyanyer are all variants of the same long-necked instrument, and the first two successfully impersonated the Greek laouta or the oud of Asia Minor in the finale. Glass also picks up on the minimalist elements that are idiomatic in each national style, although the effect is perhaps over-homogenized by the smooth background of the keyboards, flute and vocals of the Philip Glass ensemble. Only when the traditional Greek song Tzivaeri is performed at the end in at least seven different tuning systems does a real edge emerge, and it is intensified by the theme of the song, a motherís lament for a child who has left home never to return. "A curse on abroad" (one of the few phrases audible in Eleftheria Arvanitakiís husky delivery) is not perhaps the most auspicious line in a celebration of international harmony, but the song is beautiful, simple and moving.

The performers were a delight, the main pleasure of the work. Particularly outstanding was Wu Man, petite, exquisitely elegant and a viscerally energetic virtuoso on the pipa, but all were masterful and clearly having a great time. The duet between Ashley MacIsaacís violin and Foday Musa Susoís kora, where clashing pitches were reconciled by a clear meeting of musical minds and instrumental techniques, was notably entertaining.

No one has even expected profundity from Philip Glass, and Orion is perhaps particularly insubstantial as a composition, since it is more a simple framework for the performers. But if it doesnít address all the weighty issues of the day, it provides an interval for everyone, whatever their musical background, to enjoy the same things and to get a sense of shared humanity. It is probably a lot more wholesome for that purpose than most Olympic sports.

HE Elsom



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