SAN FRANCISCO -- Philip Glass turned 70 in January. Although hardly neglected, he has not been accorded the massive retrospectives or near universal accolades that marked his fellow composer Steve Reich’s 70th birthday last year. But then retrospectives are hardly feasible for a composer who has spun notes nearly every day for the last 50 years. And, to mix metaphors (as Glass mixes media), wheat does need to be separated from chaff.
What makes sense is for the tireless composer to simply keep going, and so he has. But even for Glass the last few months have been remarkable. In June in Toronto, he premiered a 95-minute staged song cycle, “Book of Longing,” a setting of 22 poems and song lyrics by Leonard Cohen. And last week, San Francisco Opera premiered Glass’ Civil War epic, “Appomattox.”
Both are major, mature works, and they were presented back to back in the Bay Area this week, with Stanford University giving the West Coast premiere of “Book of Longing” on Tuesday night in its Memorial Auditorium and San Francisco Opera offering the second performance of “Appomattox” on Wednesday at the War Memorial Opera House.
These big scores are meaningful meditations on ego and its implications for the self as well as for the world at large. “Book of Longing,” written for four singers and a small ensemble, is a study in intimacy. Cohen’s subject matter is himself. His recent writing, informed by his five years as a Zen monk on Mt. Baldy, is full of his wry, beautifully wrought observations about trying to let go of a domineering ego.
“Appomattox” is large-scale history expressed as a powerful grand opera. The surrender of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee to Union Gen. Ulysses S. Grant at the courthouse in the Virginia village of Appomattox ended the Civil War on a highly civil note in 1865. Glass presents this as an example of high-minded statesmanship that no longer exists. Two gracious military commanders honored humanity and humility, placing their own enormous egos aside for the greater goal of healing a divided nation.
Yet good intentions are rarely enough in this life. Cohen seems to be doing pretty well, but gloom and insecurity haven’t left the room in his poetry. America has made significant strides toward racial equality in the last 150 years, but scenes of the hate crimes that followed Lee’s surrender and continue to this day rudely, shockingly invade the narrative of “Appomattox.”
The opera ends in shocking fashion, with a monologue by a present-day member of the Ku Klux Klan spewing venom. Glass at 70 is old enough to remember. He grew up in a Baltimore that was still segregated. The Civil War is a theme that has occurred before, especially in his contributions to Robert Wilson’s operatic epic “the CIVIL warS.”
There is an enormous amount of music in “Book of Longing” and “Appomattox” taken together, and typical of Glass, much of it consists of arpeggios. Glass has, at this point in his career, a virtual patent on the technique of breaking up chords, as he does on rocking back and forth between two notes. He doesn’t always find meaning in these processes, but when he does find meaning, he can delve really deep.
“Book of Longing” and “Appomattox” guide the listener into the contemplation of poetry and history. Glass and Cohen are as interesting for their differences as for their similarities. Close in age (Cohen is 73), both are Jews who turned to Buddhism. But Cohen is a painfully slow and meticulous poet, and Glass writes rapidly. What results in “Book” is music that adds a new personality to Cohen’s lines without overpowering them.
Cohen is, of course, a songwriter himself, and many of his songs have become classics. Occasionally, Glass sets poetry that Cohen has also turned into song, but the sense throughout the cycle is of finding new angles. I had difficulty accepting Broadway-style singers (Dominique Plaisant, Tara Huga, Will Erat and Daniel Keeling) who over-emote, have too much vibrato and aren’t always sure of their pitches. The choreographer, Susan Marshall, staged the work without her characteristic dynamism.
Still, she, they and Glass all managed to brilliantly focus attention on Cohen’s texts. Not everybody agrees that these reveal wise and touching sentiments. They move me, though. And the ensemble writing -- which includes haunting cello, violin, saxophone and double bass solos -- provided an often stunning yet understated backdrop. Glass performed on keyboard, which Michael Riesman conducted from a second keyboard.
The heart of “Appomattox” is the making of peace by Grant and Lee, who were sung by excellent baritones -- Andrew Shore and Dwayne Croft. Their duet is quiet and beautiful. Both generals restrain their emotions, a fact that Glass subtly underscores. It is one of the finest moments in any of his operas.
But around this heart is a great deal else. Christopher Hampton’s libretto explains too much. The British screenwriter and director brings illuminating perspective, but he struggles to find the right tone. Nor is he a poet. Still, he captures history. He brings in the women -- the wives of the generals, and Mary Todd Lincoln and her black servant, Elizabeth Keckley.
Robert Woodruff’s production is strong. It stays in the period, which might make for stuffiness if the acting wasn’t so good and if the more modern incidents didn’t break through. The scene of the fall of Richmond is spectacular, with fire and explosions, even if Riccardo Hernandez’s set, in which horses hang as if in an abattoir, has the quality of Peter Greenaway or Achim Freyer lite. Still, it looks good, and the lighting is arresting.
The cast is large and varied, with many young singers. Elza van der Heever showed Mrs. Lee as a self-righteous racist, and Heidi Melton was a larger-than-life Mrs. Lincoln, while Kendall Gladen was a riveting presence as her servant. Philip Skinner as the Klan member made one’s hair stand on end.
Big choruses for the Confederate and Union armies are somber but rousing, based on Civil War music. Glass brings new grating dissonances and dark colors into his orchestral writing in “Appomattox,” and Dennis Russell Davies, who has conducted nearly all of Glass’ opera and orchestral premieres, got a brilliant sound from the orchestra.
This is an opera America needs, but no further productions are planned.