A Glass of Vintage Cohen
Book of Longing puts Glass’ music in a whole new context

The chance to cover this one took me by surprise, as I didn’t think I’d be reviewing it. But a family emergency caused the City Paper’s first assigned reviewer to miss Wednesday’s festival opener of Philip Glass’s Book of Longing — and I got called in the next day to make amends.

And happy I was to cover it, musical glutton that I am. Even though Philip Glass is by no means my favorite composer, I’ve been following his career with interest ever since my brother showed me a VCR tape of his Koyaanisquatsi back in the ’70s– when he and the whole minimalism thing were beginning to blossom. At the time, I embraced him joyfully as an instant hero.

And I’ve admired much of his work since, especially his operas and film scores, where multiple media are involved. But some of his other stuff — like the symphonies and keyboard pieces I’ve heard — have tended to bore me silly. Once the initial fascination wore off, I guess I just never understood the lasting value of his particular minimalist idiom: one that remains unmistakable … and one that’s beginning to wear a little thin.

But this piece is a multimedia event, with much more than just the music to keep the mind occupied. We had the remarkable poetry of Leonard Cohen to follow, as well as semi-choreographed and dramatized staging. There were four singers coming and going, plus eight other assorted instrumentalists, including the composer himself on keyboards.

Then there were Cohen’s images: a fixed background collage of hand-drawn doodles, grouped around a big, off-center screen spinning a running slideshow. The stage was a constantly changing arena, with the performers shifting here and there. Theatrical lighting completed the piece’s stage-show flavor, kind of an updated cabaret effect.

And the music? It was mostly pleasant and easy on the ear. But it wasn’t long before I began to notice some of the same old harmonic and rhythmic patterns that first caught my ear 30 years ago. Glass has been capitalizing on some of the same musical devices for a rather long time now. But, wait, consider the poetry. None of that free- or blank-verse here: it’s all in repetitive stanzas, standard meter, and slavish rhyme, making it a rather good match for predictable music. There’s more than one reason why Glass picked him.

But that’s the nitpicky critic speaking. Even though you often knew in advance how most lines of most songs would end — if you had avoided critical thinking long enough to just sit back, letting your eyes and ears drink in the whole show — you’d find it made for a very entertaining total experience. The flow of the poetry may have been ordinary, but the language and verbal imagery were often startling. And the music often found ways to underscore the linguistic impact.

And Glass managed to mix things up, keeping the full house on its collective toes. We got everything from vocal solos to quartets; soft instrumental solos gave way to bustling ensemble passages with all eight instrumentalists going full tilt. Then there’s all the movement, the images, and the lighting. Glass may still be mining the same old bag of musical tricks, but he never stops finding new contexts for them.

No matter what you think of him, Glass is one of America’s true cultural icons, and any new production from him is an event. And Spoleto was — as usual — a good place to bring his art to the musical public. I’m very glad I was there.

Book of Longing • Spoleto Festival USA

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