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Monday, June 29, 2009

Philip Glass, Dmitri Shostakovich Get Modern

Recent takes on “The Juniper Tree” and “The Nose”

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When he emerged as part of New York's edgy "downtown scene" in the 1970s, Philip Glass became the target of vituperative put-downs by the older generation of modernist composers and critics in their thrall, who composed and appreciated music according to the dictates of increasingly sterile intellectual theories. Fortunately, the spirit of those composers migrated to university cultural studies programs, influencing a generation of academics who are now ready for retirement. Glass has won. His foes are dead and their music largely forgotten. Glass' work has influenced rock music and is performed in concert halls and opera houses around the world.

One such work, The Juniper Tree, has been belatedly released on CD by the Orange Mountain label. An opera co-written with American composer Robert Moran and based on a tale by the Brothers Grimm, the recording documents the 1985 debut performance at the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, Mass.

The libretto by Arthur Yorinks follows a story grim in outline, a bizarre tale of family jealousy, murder, cannibalism and the uncanny karma of retribution. The Juniper Tree opens with ominous orchestral passages decorated by that familiar Glass signature of crystalline chords rippling in the stillness. Staccato violins stab into the air, building suspense against arias of chilling beauty.

Glass was called a minimalist early on, but The JuniperTree is one example among many later compositions of how his music came to embrace the essential elements of the Western classical tradition without entirely losing sight of the eternal present of the Indian ragas that inspired him in younger days.

The high modernists who disdained Glass might have been more comfortable with The Nose, the 1928 opera by a young Dmitri Shostakovich. In those years before Stalin outlawed the avant-garde, the Russian composer fearlessly embraced the most experimental tendencies for his setting of Gogol's satirical story. A lavishly packaged new CD of The Nose, recorded in 2008 at St. Petersburg's famed Mariinsky Theatre (and released on the Mariinsky label), reveals a thorny but rewarding work, dissonant, even jarring in between dark swirls of strings. One wonders if the raucous discord of early jazz found an echo in Shostakovich, along with brassy music of traveling carnivals.

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