Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

Opera, music, theater, and art in Los Angeles and beyond

The Music of the Spheres

November 21, 2009

Dennis Russell Davies conducts the Bruckner Orchestra Linz with Martin Achrainer as Kepler
Photo: Jack Vartoogian / BAM 2009

Philip Glass, not unlike myself, is back in New York this week. He's been at BAM with the U.S premiere of his latest opera Kepler. You guessed it, we’re back in legendary intellectual territory, as far as subject matter goes. And as for the music, it’s quintessential Glass, which I suppose could be good or bad depending on how you feel about him. I’ve always rather liked Glass’ approach. It’s certainly preferable to Steve Reich’s as far as other “minimalist” composers go. (I can only take so much of the relentless happy-happy of Reich’s music before I need to run.) Glass does have a flair for the dramatic in his music, which may explain how he’s come to compose over thirty operas, though few of them strictly follow a traditional opera format.

Kepler is no exception to this trend. The work deals mainly with the tension between scientific and religious concepts. And while the issues at hand stem directly from the 17h-century, they are sadly resonant to too many people in this country today. There is a very small amount of biographical information here, but not enough to approach anything you might call a narrative. There is only one character, Kepler, played by a wonderful sounding baritone, Martin Achrainer, and six other unnamed soloists all of whom, like the chorus, originate from the Upper Austrian State Theater. For two hours they intone passages about orbits, stars, faith, and the horrors humankind brings upon itself. All of it was quite lovely and it could be stirring at times, but honestly, it was rather difficult to get much of a hold on any of it without a little more narrative meat.

Glass' advocate, Dennis Russell Davies, led the combined forces of the Bruckner Orchestra Linz in a performance that was surprisingly organic. Glass’ music can sound overly polished and machine like in some hands, but nothing could have been more human-sounding with these forces. Glass has experimented more with percussion elements in the Kepler score, which contributes to much of this feeling. It may not be his biggest or best opera, but Kepler has a lot of music worth hearing and hopefully will surface again in the U.S. in the not too distant future.

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