Music review: ‘The Passion of Philip Glass’ at Renee and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall
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The composer Philip Glass was on hand Thursday night for a pre-concert talk at Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall, and then turned up onstage with conductor Carl St.Clair to briefly introduce all three of his works on a program that repeats Friday and Saturday night called “The Passion of Philip Glass.”
Part of an ongoing monthlong Glass Festival in the Los Angeles area that includes the West Coast premiere of “Akhnaten” by Long Beach Opera, the Costa Mesa event reprised a major late Glass work, “The Passion of Ramakrishna,” that was premiered by the Pacific Symphony in 2006. An additional performance of “Ramakrishna’ alone is scheduled for Sunday afternoon.
The piece is a 40-minute choral and symphonic tribute to a simple Hindu holy man whose book, the “Gospel of Ramakrishna,” greatly influenced the composer. Glass’ score movingly portrays the death and transformation of this 19th century Indian spiritual leader. In its quiet intensity and subtle scene painting, it shows Glass in his element as a theater composer.
Since his early 20s, Glass, now 74, has composed 28 theater works. As each one became more daring and boldly expressive, the “minimalist” label attached to Glass for so many years started to fray, if not quite fall off, especially after his striking 1976 breakthrough opera “Einstein on the Beach.”
“The Passion of Ramakrishna” is scored for a very large –- 110-plus –- chorus, full orchestra and five soloists, in small but potent parts. Yet Glass’ thoughtful orchestration and polytonal interweaving of voices, along with St.Clair’s and the Pacific Symphony’s care for balance and dynamics, maintained an intimate quality throughout. This touching “Passion” also unfolded with memorable dignity thanks to the restrained singing and superb clarity of John Alexander’s Pacific Chorale, and the heartfelt work of soprano Janice Chandler-Eteme, baritone Christòpheren Nomura, bass Kevin Deas, mezzo-soprano I-Chin Feinblatt and tenor Nicholas Preston. The concert began with “Meetings Along the Edge,” the fifth section from “Passages,” a 1990 collaboration between Glass and his old friend Ravi Shankar that was arranged for saxophone quartet and chamber orchestra by Dennis Russell Davies. Lasting about eight minutes, it’s an intensely joyous ride that Glass described as “East and West meeting in one person.” And in one of Glass’ most popular pieces, the John Coltrane-inspired and classically crafted (there’s even a tranquil adagio-like third movement) Concerto for Saxophone Quartet and Orchestra, the Pacific Symphony and Prism Quartet –- Timothy McAllister, soprano saxophone; Zachary Shemon, alto; Matt Levy, tenor; Taimur Sullivan, baritone -– delivered a rhapsodic, riveting performance.
“The Passion of Philip Glass” Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa; 8 p.m. Firiday and Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday (“Ramakrishna” only); $25-$185; 714-755-5799 or www.pacificsymphony.org