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Music review: Jacaranda revives obscure Philip Glass choral work

October 17, 2011 |  4:00 pm

Mark Alan Hilt

This post has been corrected. See note below for details.

Philip Glass’ 75th birthday is Jan. 31, and almost everyone wants at least a piece of the action this season. We’re not doing too badly in these parts. The Los Angeles Philharmonic commissioned the orchestral version of “Powaqqatsi” (performed along with the film at the Hollywood Bowl in August), and it has co-commissioned the Ninth Symphony (coming this spring). Last week, Tim Fain gave the West Coast premiere of Glass’ substantial new Partita for solo violin in Santa Monica.

Again in Santa Monica on Saturday and Sunday, Jacaranda, the new music series, devoted most of its first program of the season to Glass, including a rare performance of his monumental “Another Look at Harmony, Part 4” at First Presbyterian Church. Written for a small chorus and organ,  the score -- which was completed in 1976 and is something of a road map for the contemporaneous "Einstein on the Beach" -- lasted 54 minutes in a luxuriantly measured performance.

Jacaranda is the obvious local organization to mount this section of “Harmony.” Music director Mark Alan Hilt is an organist. And by twice performing the complete “Knee Plays” from “Einstein,” Jacaranda has so far done more for Glass’ groundbreaking operatic collaboration with Robert Wilson than anyone else on the West Coast. That distinction won’t last, though. UCLA pulled out of Glass’ and Wilson’s upcoming full “Einstein” revival, and the opera will be given its West Coast premiere at UC Berkeley next fall.

Earlier parts of “Harmony” were turned into “Einstein,” but Part 4 stands alone. As in the opera, a chorus sings the do-re-mi syllables of solfeggio to repeated patterns, while the organ swirls in the background. But the harmonic movement is more varied and less predictable than in “Einstein.”

Even so, the “Einstein” connection remains strong on Glass’ recording of the score, which features a spunky chorus of eight and the kind of edgy electric organ that is found in pop music of the time. What was heard at First Pres, on the other hand, was another look at “Another Look at Harmony, Part 4.”

A chorus of 28 beautifully blended voices was backed by a reverberant church organ. The singers stood under a large, scarf-draped cross. Scott Dunn conducted almost as if he were in the trance of sacred Bruckner. The final, ecstatic section was pure rapture. Performing a block from the beach, Jacaranda calls its series “music at the edge.” The hard Glass edge was here gone, replaced by sonic succulence and at times the slow tempos provoked a near erotic moaning from the chorus. That’s not a complaint, just an acknowledgment of different strokes for different folks.

On the first half of the program, the Lyris Quartet played Glass’ String Quartet No. 5 sleekly, luminously, lyrically, like Schubert. Once more, this was Glass out of context, given that the work, written in 1991, is closely associated with the edgier Kronos Quartet, an edge this time rounded and smoothed by the Lyris'  honeyed tone.

That, too, is no complaint, especially given that Glass expanded his harmonies further in the 15 years following the “Harmony” series. His melodies in this quartet have a tendency of stopping in midair and gliding. The Lyris, which is made up of busy L.A. freelance musicians, is, like the legendary Hollywood String Quartet of yore, a labor of love. With each performance its radiance seems a little more radiant.

The program opened with Nico Muhly’s “Clear Music.” Muhly served as an assistant to Glass for a few years, and is now, at 30, on the way to his own Glass-like ubiquity. His latest opera was premiered in June in London and is headed for the Metropolitan. He has two major film scores this fall –- “Margaret,” which just opened (and closed) and “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close,” starring Tom Hanks, opening on Christmas. Performances of Muhly’s chamber, choral and orchestral pieces are commonplace and his discography quickly growing.

“Clear Music” for cello (Cecilia Tsan), celesta (Aron Kallay) and harp (Maria Casale) was written when Muhly was 22, which makes it impressive juvenilia. It lasts 10 minutes and is full of bold statements for each instrument. Somber melodies convey the aura of old church music hammered out in bold colors. It’s the music of an utterly self-confident young composer who knows he is going places and wants to make sure you know it too.

RELATED:

Music review: 'Einstein' at the beach

Music review: 'Powaqqatsi' at the Hollywood Bowl

Philip Glass, from Minimalism to mainstream

-- Mark Swed

For the record, 5:20 Tuesday, Oct. 18: An earlier version of this review said the Jacaranda group's performances of Philip Glass’ “Another Look at Harmony, Part 4” last weekend in Santa Monica were at the First Congregational Church. They were at the First Presbyterian Church.

Photo: Jacaranda organist Mark Alan Hilt performing with chorus in Philip Glass' "Another Look at Harmony, Part 4" at First Presbyterian Church, Santa Monica, Sunday night. Credit: Lawrence K. Ho/Los Angeles Times.

 

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