From drama to Dracula: Matt Evans reports from Glasgow Minimal festival’s Glass at 75 celebrations (24-26 May, Glasgow Old Fruitmarket/City Halls/Royal Concert Hall)
Glasgow’s ongoing immersion in modern composition continues with three nights dedicated to the work of one of the great iconoclasts of the 20th century.
Glass’ first appearance finds him remarkably fresh from a transatlantic flight and in informal conversation with Svend Brown, Glasgow Life’s director of music. An engaging, inspirational and affable speaker, Glass vividly recounts his early life and education, his training with the complementary elementary forces of Ravi Shankar and Nadia Boulanger, and his constant quest to escape from what he sees as the restrictions of his own personal style.
‘Glass’ singular aesthetic shines through’
However, as the following three nights show, regardless of genre, instrumentation or idiom, Glass’ singular aesthetic shines through.
The opening programme, featuring the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra (BBCSSO) conducted by Nicholas Collon, comprises a triple bill of works exploring loss and transformation.
Elgar’s Sospiri Op 70 (Adagio for String Orchestra) is unbearably poignant, its elegiac melody verging on stillness but ebbing and flowing with welling sorrow. Tod und Verklärung, Richard Strauss’ tone-poem depiction of the moment of death, offers myriad dynamic transitions between sombre, edge-of-consciousness reflection and thrilling, explosive bombast. After the raging tumult of a whole life re-experienced in fast-forward, it culminates with a fading heartbeat and soft acceptance.
Finally, we have the UK debut of Glass’ Symphony No 6, a three-act mini-opera based on Allen Ginsberg’s poem about the dangers of nuclear power, Plutonian Ode.
Undaunted by the prospect of interpreting the evocative but viscous, nigh-formless libretto (‘My voice resounds through robot glove boxes and ingot cans and echoes in electric vaults inert of atmosphere’), soprano Lauren Flanigan brings unparalleled fire and muscle, while Collon and the BBCSSO seem to delight in the vast physicality of Glass’ propulsive, riff-heavy and occasionally repetitive score.
‘Soprano Lauren Flanigan brings unparalleled fire and muscle’
At times, there is palpable resistance between Flanigan’s formal (if, here, esoteric) operatic vocal mannerisms and the stark, mathematical modernity of the score, but this magnetic push and pull only serves to enhance their distinct power. However, amid the cathartic and transformative polyrhythms of the third and final movement, these two elements fuse with devastating effect.
Once her work is all but done, Flanigan stands aloof – confidently, powerfully beneficent – turning her scorching gaze our way while the music boils and seethes around her. It is an unforgettably dramatic climax to an extraordinary work.
The following night brings horror into our midst: accompanied by the Kronos Quartet (pictured) and keyboardist Michael Riesman, Glass performs a live soundtrack to Tod Browning’s 1931 version of Dracula.
This is a paradigm-setting movie; the foundation myth for the modern cinematic vampire. Clearly, some in the audience find it risible – but with just a little suspension of disbelief when it comes to rubber bats and a little tolerance of theatrical ham, the film is surprisingly effective even 80 years on.
Glass’ restrained, intricate but unshowy score subtly complements and enhances the nefarious goings-on, skewering the tension or adding stifling mass to looming gloom where appropriate. Occasionally, the accompanists crowd out the film’s dialogue, sparse though it is, but the overall experience is captivating. It’s a tribute to their soundtracking ability that this legendary composer and this world-class ensemble can perform together in a major concert hall and go virtually unnoticed by a thousand people immersed in antique Transylvanian escapades.
‘A thousand people immersed in antique Transylvanian escapades’
For the third and final night of the residency, less is more, appropriately enough. This is Glass and violinist Tim Fain in recital, in solos and duets.
The composer is alone at the grand piano for a beautiful, sweeping Mad Rush, his right hand fluttering with the energy of new love, his left, sonorous – yearning for the same, now lost.
Metamorphosis numbers four and five are similarly affecting, delicately hammering home how emotionally rich this music – seen by some as cold and theoretical – can be.
Fain’s bravura performance of the composer’s Partita for Solo Violin in Seven Movements explicitly evokes one of Glass’ influences, its comprehensive melodic and rhythmic variations a celebration of JS Bach at his most rigorous.
Glass and Fain perform together on selections from Jean Genet’s literally riotous play The Screens, of which the dreamlike The Orchard, with its slippery heat-haze strings and barely-there chords, is a highlight.
By contrast, the final piece, Tim Fain’s solo encore of Knee Play 2 from Einstein on the Beach, is a flamboyant, thrilling display of virtuoso pyrotechnics. At least twice as fast as the recorded version, Fain’s speed-metal interpretation of Glass’ spiralling patterns sets jaws a-plummeting into the night and provides an unsurpassable climax to the weekend.
Photo (Kronos Quartet and Philip Glass) © Anita Russo