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Going with the worldwide flow

Philip Glass bridged geography and cultures to create 'Orion,' which receives its West Coast premiere tonight.

June 24, 2005|Chris Pasles | Times Staff Writer

A row of three stars forming a belt makes Orion one of the easiest constellations to spot. Named after a hunter in Greek mythology, it's one of the few star patterns that can be seen -- at least in part -- from both the Northern and Southern hemispheres.

The universality of this astral formation provided a cue for Philip Glass when the committee overseeing the 2004 Athens Cultural Olympiad asked him to compose a new work for last year's Games.

In their spirit, he envisioned fellow composers and performers from around the world coming together to play in their own styles and also to create a coherent whole.

Glass wound up working with instrumentalists from seven cultures -- including master sitar player Ravi Shankar, who first introduced him to non-Western music in 1965 when the two collaborated in India. That encounter proved to be pivotal in his development, paving the way for his use of repetitive rhythmic patterns in the style that was dubbed Minimalism.

Ultimately, he named the new piece "Orion," and it premiered last year at the Odeion of Herodes Atticus at the base of the Acropolis. Tonight, the 90-minute work will receive its West Coast premiere at the Orange County Performing Arts Center on the closing program of this year's Eclectic Orange Festival.

"Every culture has created myths and taken inspiration from Orion," Glass, 68, said by phone recently during a rehearsal break in New York City. "One of my favorites is the myth of the hunter who was blind on Earth, but when he was put in the heavens, he could see.

"That's a great parable of the artist -- the poet who sees at night but is blind during the day. He's a visionary when he sees, and when that capability is not functioning, he's an ordinary person."

In a succession of solos and overlapping entrances and exits, "Orion" showcases musicians and instruments from Australia (Mark Atkins, didgeridoo), China (Wu Man, pipa), Canada (Ashley MacIsaac, fiddle), Africa (Foday Musa Suso, kora and nyanyer), Brazil (Uatki, Brazilian percussion), India (Kartik Seshadri, sitar) and Greece (Eleftheria Arvanitaki, vocalist).

All the soloists return for the finale, a traditional Greek song sung by Arvanitaki.

Holding everything together is the Philip Glass Ensemble -- three woodwinds, three synthesizers, voice and two percussionists -- which backs the soloists.

Working with artists from different musical traditions, however, tested even Glass' flexibility. Suso, for instance, mailed him a tape of a solo he wanted to play on his stringed instruments, and the composer worked around it, writing an accompaniment that "would ease in and out of the piece and which would support and anticipate Foday's melodies, echo them and play countermelodies."

But when the two got together to rehearse, "Foday was playing something entirely different. I said, 'That's not the piece you wrote.' He said, 'I'm playing something else.' He basically composed a new piece to go with the piece I wrote with his first piece in mind."

So what did Glass do?

"I went with the flow."

With didgeridoo player Atkins, Glass wrote essentially a music-minus-one piece to leave the musician "space to compose" on his 5-foot Aboriginal wind instrument. For Wu Man and her Chinese lute, he wrote a cadenza, then built a piece based on that. "She took my melodies and rhythms but played them in the style of Chinese music," he said.

Shankar wrote the piece representing India. At 85, however, he was reluctant to travel to Athens for the premiere and sent a student in his place. Nevertheless, he remained active in "Orion's" progress.

"He kept changing things," said Glass. "Ravi composed a number of melodies based on a rhythm of nine -- all the different ways to count to nine you can imagine. Then he recomposed the material. We went back and forth. Then, at the end, he wanted another change. I kept moving things around to fit.

"That was the most difficult piece to play. Every day we began with it. We got to the 10th day and then we could play it."

Although it took place over long distances, the entire collaboration, Glass said, took only a year.

"We scheduled a two-week rehearsal period together in New York, but we couldn't get visas for everybody because of the Homeland Security Act. We didn't actually rehearse until Athens, where we worked every day. Then it rained the day of the premiere. But we had fun with the rain."

The work was later repeated in Italy, France and London.

"Because it needs so many virtuosos, I didn't think we'd ever manage to do it again," he said. "To get this kind of touring going is amazing."

Not everyone has been enchanted with the results.

" 'Orion' is fuzzy, feelgood entertainment designed to support the fuzzy, feelgood thesis that there isn't much wrong with the Brotherhood of Man that a ... good long-jump competition can't put right," said the London Times.

Glass, though, isn't fazed by such criticism. "I've been in that dialogue my whole life -- whether it was really a legitimate thing to know other traditions," he said. "The main thing was to look at each of the traditions and find the commonality they had. Where does it make sense to be together and in a way that honors the uniqueness of the traditions we're working with?

"What I'm particularly pleased with is the way the idea worked with the musicians. Orion is a constellation you can see all over the world. Every culture has a different story about it. But looking at stars is the beginning of culture, of arts, of sciences. It's one of the things that brought us together as human beings besides music -- every culture. Orion becomes a witness, in a way. We witness him, and he witnesses us."



Where: Orange County Performing Arts Center, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa

When: 8 tonight

Price: $27 to $49

Contact: (949) 553-2422 or

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