- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 10, 2001

Composer Philip Glass doesn't tackle modest themes in his work. The latest effort of the prolific musician, who has written operas, lengthy theater pieces and award-winning movie scores, is Symphony No. 5 Requiem, Bardo and Nirmanakaya. It has its Washington premiere with the Choral Arts Society of Washington tomorrow in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall. The libretto, compiled largely from texts used by the world's main religions, encompasses the history of the world in a little more than 90 minutes.
"This is grand, grand. Cosmic grand," Mr. Glass says. "It goes from before creation to paradise, with nothing left out as far as I can tell. The thing I like about it is the text has such a broad source. Scholars of world religions consider that all three main religions are connected, so that it becomes representative of the wisdom traditions from all over.
"We have said this for several decades. Now that the world has come so much closer together, you can't do something in one part without affecting another that the wings of a butterfly in China will affect the weather in another part of the world."
Mr. Glass explains the origin of such an ambitious enterprise as partly coincidence and partly the result of a long-stated plan to be involved in a creative project with his friend the Very Rev. James Parks Morton, retired dean of New York City's Cathedral of John the Divine.
Mr. Morton supplied the text, taken from every major language and religion. A third collaborator, Kusumita Priscilla Pedersen, head of the religion department at St. Francis College in Brooklyn, supplied scholarly advice. The trio worked together for one year, holding weekly meetings as often as their schedules would permit.
The libretto drove the music, which Mr. Glass imagined as a bridge between past and future, going from death (the Requiem) to an in-between state (the Buddhist Bardo), and, finally, an enlightened rebirth (Nirmanakaya).
"We worked section by section, assembling three or four texts for each. I then wrote the music and came up with a final text within half a year," Mr. Glass says.
A commission from Gerard Mortier, artistic director of the Salzburg Festival, to write a symphony celebrating the new millennium set the work in motion. The first performance of the 12-movement piece took place two years ago with a full orchestra, a four-part chorus, children's choir and soloists. It subsequently was put on at the Brooklyn Academy of Music and venues in Orange County, Calif.; Belgium; Australia; and Tokyo. It will be performed next in Copenhagen.
"I didn't imagine it would be done so much. I really thought a piece of that scale would be done once and never again," the composer says, talking exuberantly on the telephone from Missouri at the end of a national tour performing scores he has written for the movies during the past 20 years.
The Washington performance is dedicated to the victims and heroes of the September 11 terrorist attacks and will be recorded for a hearing at 9 p.m. Tuesday on WETA-FM. Members of the Kennedy Center audience will receive copies of a commemorative text, which will be sung in English. The public also is invited to a free 45-minute pre-concert discussion with Mr. Glass and Mr. Morton at 1:15 p.m. in the Atrium on the Roof Terrace level. The concert starts at 2:30 p.m.
Doubtless the success of the symphony available on a Nonesuch recording with conductor Dante Anazolini, who will be in charge tomorrow is due in some measure to its spiritual nature and positive assessment of humanity.
Mr. Glass says another reason is because "there are these wonderful ensembles around like the Choral Society of Washington, and they would like to do new work in addition to the routine repertoire such as Benjamin Britten's 'War Requiem.' They just get tired of doing the requiems, and then a new work comes along that is different in terms of what they normally do. This is a little bigger than the Verdi Requiem because it has a children's chorus.
"You have to understand that I've done more work in theater music theater than straight concert work, so I'm always surprised when these things get picked up."
The man praised by Norman Scribner, the Choral Society's musical director, as "one of the most eloquent musical voices of the final third of the 20th century" is a Baltimore native. He also is a graduate of the University of Chicago and Juilliard School and a practicing Buddhist who listed "former taxicab driver" among his education and attainment credits in Who's Who in America.
An official biography says he discovered music in his father's radio repair shop, which doubled as a small record store. Those records that didn't sell, mostly great chamber works, were played at home for the family. Even today, Mr. Glass names Bach's "Goldberg Variations" as among his favorite pieces of music, followed by Verdi's Requiem, Stravinsky's Sixth Symphony ("The Palms") and the work of a number of contemporary classical composers.
Mr. Glass spends much of his time on the road, performing with the ensemble that bears his name. "I was on a concert program with Paul Simon and Patti Smith recently," he says. Among a multitude of upcoming projects is Symphony No. 6, which he describes as "a commission by Carnegie Hall for my birthday early next year, a work for a solo voice, 40 minutes long."
Now 64, he has spent much of his professional life in collaborative efforts, including a role as a co-founder of the New York-based Mabou Mines theater company, for which he composed music. His movie work includes music for such films as "The Thin Blue Line," "Kundun" and "The Truman Show." He has collaborated with theater director JoAnne Akalaitis (a former wife), Robert Wilson, Mr. Simon and the late Allen Ginsburg, among others. One of his best-known compositions is the 41/2-hour performance piece "Einstein on the Beach," done 25 years ago in collaboration with Robert Wilson.
A great deal of his work dating from the 1970s was influenced by on-site research of Far Eastern music techniques. He and Mr. Morton met in 1979 during the Dalai Lama's first trip to America. When the Tibetan Buddhist leader had his first public appearance in America at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, Mr. Glass played the organ.
"We had talked for years about doing a big interfaith thing at the cathedral, and I suggested a requiem in which we would bring in the religions of the world," Mr. Morton recalls, noting that Symphony No. 5 includes "a very beautiful statement of compassion that comes from the Dalai Lama's favorite prayer."
Tomorrow's performance will find Mr. Glass "standing and applauding with everyone else."
"With pieces like this that I don't perform, I don't always even show up," Mr. Glass adds. "I came for this because I know Norman and I know their work. My sister lives in Washington and I have friends there."
His sister, Sheppie Abramowitz, works for the International Rescue Committee, and his brother-in-law, Morton Abramowitz, is a former career ambassador and founder of the International Crisis Group.


Copyright © 2018 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

The Washington Times Comment Policy

The Washington Times welcomes your comments on Spot.im, our third-party provider. Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.

 

Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide