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Glass' 'Orion' strikes a deep chord

June 27, 2005|Mark Swed | Times Staff Writer

The mood at the beginning is slightly dark, ominous. A didgeridoo, the snake-like Australian instrument, booms and gurgles, the sound of a primeval sea creature coming to life. The Philip Glass Ensemble purrs and pulses.

In a stately order of segments lasting 10 to 15 minutes each, there follows an elegant pipa player from China, a Cape Breton fiddle player with attitude from Nova Scotia, a princely Mandingo griot (a "musician/historian") from Gambia, a bouncy group of percussionists from Brazil, a breathtaking sitar player from India and a glamorous Greek folk singer.

If you wanted to be really cornball, you could say that Philip Glass is reaching for the stars in "Orion." Or you could call his new world-music extravaganza -- created for the Cultural Olympiad preceding the Olympic Games in Athens last year and given its West Coast premiere at the Orange County Performing Arts Center on Friday night -- a musical "Family of Man."

At the very least, you might wonder whether the Philip Glass ensemble has gone soft. Though the embodiment of Minimalist SoHo hip for more than three decades, the players walked onto the Segerstrom stage in white. White! Ice cream suits for these men and women who always before were in black?

Maybe Glass has gone a little soft, as his detractors have been trying to convince some of us for a long time. Or maybe, just maybe, he has something important to say, and he is enough of a showman to have found a flashy but theatrically effective way to say it.

Music is not a universal language. People have problems with other people's music. Did I read recently that classical concerts can be scary for some people? Doctors tell us we should fear rock concerts that reach ear-damaging volumes. I know someone who would probably prefer torture to the very, very long musical events that I love -- Wagner operas, Morton Feldman's six-hour string quartet, Terry Riley's all-night concerts, Indonesian puppet plays that last forever.

Glass is not like the rest of us. He is musically fearless, at home with a symphony orchestra or in a rock club blasting music at ear-shattering levels. A true citizen of the world, he is ever on the road and often finding and collaborating with great musicians of other traditions. He, in fact, found his own voice as a student in Paris working with Ravi Shankar.

Nor is he like most of us in the way he works. He has no difficulty writing the same, or almost the same, music day after day. He gets up and writes, and if it's yesterday's music, that appears to trouble him not at all. But in the process, he evolves -- subtly, incrementally, naturally. He is lambasted for repeating himself, which, of course, he does all the time, but there is something heartening in the deep trust he puts in the process.

It is that trust -- along with his sociability, excellent connections and restlessness -- that makes him the world-music connoisseur that he is. He's worked, over the years, on projects with all the musicians of "Orion," except the Greek singer. The minute Friday's concert was over, the audience invaded the CD table in the lobby. Even the most sophisticated in the crowd probably discovered someone new and amazing and wanted more.

Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of this project is just how much the guest musicians seem to be extensions of their instruments and yet at ease in Glass' sphere. Mark Atkins played the didgeridoo. He's appropriately large, sports a walrus mustache, and blowing into his long tube he added a new but appropriate bass burble to all the other bass burbles of Glass' sound world.

Wu Man has made the pipa, a Chinese lute, relatively well known. She is used to working with all kinds of Western and mixed groups (Kronos as well as Yo-Yo Ma's Silk Road project). Here, the Glass Ensemble of keyboards, woodwinds, percussion and a vocalist, kept modestly in the background, setting the stage for her virtuosity, which is stunning.

Ashley MacIsaac, wearing a kilt, is young, anything but elegant and a show stealer. For him, Glass created a kind of amused accompaniment (assuming arpeggios can demonstrate amusement) and let the Canadian folk fiddler stomp and turn up the temperature to his heart's content.

Foday Musa Suso, dressed in billowing black-and-white checks and playing the kora (a 21-stringed lute) and nyanyar (an African fiddle), brought a quiet majesty, and Glass almost disappeared. The affable Brazilian percussion trio, Uakti, were, on the other hand, seemingly happy to give percussive understatement to Glass' music.

Glass met Ravi Shankar, whose music was played on sitar by Kartik Seshadri, halfway. Given the fresh exuberance of this segment, Shankar still has the power, after 40 years, to set Glass on new paths.

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