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Music Review

From Glass, a new sense of balance

The composer reworks 'Koyaanisqatsi' for the Bowl. Bigness helps get

July 25, 2009|MARK SWED | MUSIC CRITIC

It has been 26 years since Godfrey Reggio's film "Koyaanisqatsi: Life Out of Balance" had its premiere. Images shot in the late '70s and early '80s of waste, war, consumerism, destruction, technological frenzy and folly, along with poverty, are slowed down and sped up. Philip Glass' famous score leads the eye and the emotions. Beauty is found where it is neither expected nor necessarily wanted.

Balance, we understand after 87 mesmerizing moments, is personal. The world when we stop to look and listen is beautiful, and our finding ecological equilibrium is a matter of changing our minds. Alas, "Koyaanisqatsi" remains fresh for wrong reasons as well as artistic ones: Little has changed in a quarter-century.

But Thursday night, "Koyaanisqatsi" changed. For a screening at the Hollywood Bowl, the Los Angeles Philharmonic commissioned Glass to alter the balance of his score and make a new version for his ensemble and for orchestra and chorus. Michael Riesman, the music director of the Philip Glass Ensemble, conducted. The composer was one of the keyboardists.

Glass has performed the soundtrack to the film live more than 200 times, he told The Times. The score has seeped into widespread musical consciousness. Even P.D.Q. Bach has parodied the opening deep bass Koyaaaaaan-is-qat-siiii chant. But at all those live screenings, a spunky small ensemble of electric keyboards, winds and soprano fills in for the chamber-orchestra-sized group on the film soundtrack.

The new version mainly fleshes out the original brass, wind, string and vocal parts for a now moderately sized L.A. Philharmonic and the Los Angeles Master Chorale. The large forces were not liberally used and were reserved mainly for effect. The Bowl's amplification nicely served the ensemble, which is always amplified and always loud, but orchestra and chorus were somewhat out of balance over the sound system.

Still, the Bowl is an outsized venue. The screen over the shell is large. The audience included a contingent of ill-mannered rock fans (I was asked by one to sit down during the national anthem because I was blocking her view). Bigness was needed to get any point across.

Mainly, though, it was good to finally have Glass at the Bowl. This has been a curiously long journey. The L.A. Philharmonic does not have a Glass-friendly history. Shortly after "Koyaanisqatsi" came out, the orchestra gave a concert performance of Glass' score for the "Rome" segment of "the CIVIL warS," Robert Wilson's ill-fated epic international operatic project commissioned for 1984's Olympic Arts Festival in Los Angeles but dropped when funding could not be found. The players were said to hate playing the repetitive music.

Esa-Pekka Salonen was never a fan, but John Adams finally broke the ice with a program of the orchestra's "Minimalist Jukebox" Festival in 2006. Last summer at the Hollywood Bowl, the orchestra performed Glass again when Leonard Slatkin conducted excerpts from "the CIVIL warS" and the Violin Concerto with concertmaster Martin Chalifour as soloist.

And now it appears Glass has won over at least some of the musicians. Several L.A. Philharmonic players not needed on stage showed up anyway to sit in the audience.

Glass, however, told the audience he never felt he had completely made it until he actually played the Bowl, and finally he was on the fabled stage. Since the film couldn't begin until darkness, he began with a piano solo, "Opening," and the ensemble offered two other popular early pieces -- "Facades" and "Spaceship" from "Einstein on the Beach."

But first came a surprise: Riesman made an arrangement of the national anthem for the ensemble. The group's soprano, Lisa Bielawa, an interesting composer in her own right, sang it without vibrato in piercing tones. The phrasing was rhythmic and choppy. The harmonies were new and startling.

During World War II, Stravinsky was almost arrested for tampering with national property when he made a Spartan version of "The Star-Spangled Banner." Riesman is lucky we live in different times. Not everyone I spoke with at intermission was happy about the arrangement. But like "Koyaanisqatsi," it offered a new -- and, in its own way, exhilarating -- perspective.

Riesman's conducting of "Koyaanisqatsi" was also exhilarating. Although he kept the music mostly synchronized to the film, he did not conduct as if a prisoner to the screen. In fact, he could create such a sense of momentum that there were times when it felt as though the music were moving the images and that the film was a living organism. And in this town, at least, that is not life out of balance.

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mark.swed@latimes.com

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