Composer: Philip Glass
Director: R. B. Schalther
Johnny Gandelsman: Violin
William Frampton: Viola
After the terrific recital for two pianos by Leif Ove Andsnes and Marc-André Hamelin on Friday night at Carnegie Hall, my schedule had me up for another exciting musical endeavor on Saturday night with a rare performance of Philip Glass' Madrigal Opera at National Sawdust. New York City is apparently not done celebrating the composer's 80th birthday and, needless to say, nobody’s complaining. Having a chance to discover a work I am not familiar with by a composer that I admire is always a treat, so I soldiered on and eagerly crossed the East River to Williamsburg.
That of course also meant that I had to reluctantly contend with relentless throngs of self-important hipsters and directions-challenged tourists on a hot Saturday evening in the ultra-trendy neighborhood – A dreadful combination if there ever was one – but luckily the performance was starting at 7 p.m., which implied that I fortunately would at least avoid the rowdy late-night crowds. One has to be grateful for the little things, n'est-ce-pas?
I did not know much about Madrigal Opera when I got my ticket, and all the information I briefly tried to glean beforehand did not help much either. Commissioned for the 1980 Holland Festival, written between Einstein at the Beach and Satyagraha, it is a deceptively pared-down composition for a violin, a viola, six voices, but neither characters nor plot are to be found because the director intrepid enough to rise to the challenge is expected to provide the theatrical portion of the operatic equation. Or not.
As I stepped into the genuinely cool performance venue, I was instructed to sit anywhere but not to move the seats, which had been placed all over the space in a seemingly helter skelter fashion, a music stand waiting for the solo musician smack in the middle of the room. So there seemed to be a method to the apparent randomness. Or not.
At the appointed time, violinist Johnny Gandelsman, and later violist William Frampton, sat down and took on the lonely task of imperturbably playing Glass' starkly minimalist score, which consisted in repeated motifs inexorably unfolding in ever-changing configurations for over half an hour each. More often than not, the soloist was accompanied by various combinations of the singers from Choral Chameleon, who were all inconspicuously sitting among the audience until they started vocalizing the names of the notes being heard. Altogether, instruments and voices pointedly contributed to the creation of a self-contained system that was as impenetrable as fascinating.
The staging by Artist-in-Residence R. B. Schlather was simple but effective. The only source of light in the venue was a live view from the top of the building of the Williamsburg waterfront, located two blocks away, which was projected on the main wall. As daylight was progressively going down outside, darkness was slowly creeping in inside, a phenomenon that was in fact barely perceptible when one was caught up in the music’s spell-binding groove. And the final effect was all the more arresting for it.
It turned out that my slightly medicated and definitely sleep-deprived state was perfect for this kind of intriguingly eerie yet firmly grounded experience, the hypnotic nature of the music easily dragging my weakened mind into Glass’ mysteriously attractive universe. And except maybe for the guy who suddenly ran out during the second half, the rest of the audience sounded totally fulfilled by the whole trip as well, never mind that the performance did not exactly qualify as a bona fide opera. From the elated comments I overheard, I could tell that nobody was likely to ask for their money back.