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March 17, 2008 | by  | in Music Theatre |
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Book of Longing

A collaboration of Philip Glass with Leonard Cohen seems logical in hindsight, but the success of a joint effort by two men with such distinct — and distinctive — artistic personalities cannot have been a foregone conclusion.

Leonard Cohen was an established poet before he became a great songwriter. His poems and lyrics have always been marked by a certain humility in the face of questions about sex, spirituality, and power, on which he consistently meditates. Along with Cohen’s simple and attractive prosody and music, this rare humility has drawn many musicians to collaborate with or cover him. But the results have been mixed: ostentatious personalities who may mistake humility and simplicity for formlessness have not combined well with Cohen’s art. (The 1977 album Death of a Ladies’ Man is an example: Phil Spector struggled to make sense of Cohen’s sensibility, and imposed his own musical voice on lyrics where it didn’t belong.)

Philip Glass is a composer of the first rank whose musical voice is distinctive and idiosyncratic to the point of being iconic. So it is interesting, and slightly risky, for Cohen to entrust Glass with the setting of poems from his recent collection, Book of Longing. What makes the collaboration work is Glass’s impeccable taste and compassion. Over a long career, he has drawn on Indian and Native American spirituality to explore everyday life in the modern, postmodernising, and globalising world. In Book of Longing, he draws on Cohen’s characteristic — and characteristically Jewish — spiritual humility to continue both men’s highly personal explorations of the same material.

The result was heard last Sunday at the Michael Fowler Centre as part of the New Zealand International Festival of the Arts. Fifteen poems are set to music, interspersed with seven poems recorded in Cohen’s deep, subtly inflected voice, and short instrumental solos for cello, oboe, violin, alto saxophone, and double bass. All this should be regarded as a single, 100-minute composition by Glass, and not as a concert or album of unrelated songs.

This composition is both sophisticated and accessible. There is a great deal of emotional range: sometimes the mood is reflective, as in the setting of ‘A Sip of Wine’; and at other times it’s exhilarating (‘Puppet Time’). Often, it’s both of these at the same time: ‘Babylon’ is particularly strong in managing this difficult combination. The contrasts are deftly handled, and the end result is a work that’s easier to follow and more immediately satisfying than some of Glass’s bare-dense minimalism.

The performance was excellent. From the opening bar, Glass’s music was utterly immersive and not for a moment dull.

The instrumentalists, some of them long-time collaborators with Glass, grasped and conveyed the constant and subtle rhythmic and harmonic shifting that has been a Glass hallmark since the 1960s. Particularly impressive were Wendy Sutter (cello), Megan Marolf (oboe, english horn), and Timothy Fain (violin), whose instrumental solos were arresting and technically very demanding. Glass’ cello writing is always very strong, but the oboe solo was the surprise highlight. The mournful piece explores the instrument’s range fully, and could well find itself in oboe recitals. Fain is gifted with a charismatic presence on stage in addition to obvious raw talent. I expect we will hear much more of him in the future.

In a concert with highly varied voice writing, the singers — Dominique Plaisant (soprano), Tara Hugo (mezzo), Will Erat (tenor), and Daniel Keeling (bass-baritone) — did very well. Hugo and Keeling in particular showed great appreciation for the overall shape of Glass’s composition as well as Cohen’s lyrics. Keeling’s elegant and understated stage presence anchored much of the concert visually, especially when all four singers were moving around onstage at the same time.

Erat’s performance disappointed me. His singing was not the problem, for he has a superb voice. Instead it was his manner that was annoying. He was stuck on Broadway, as if this were a concert performance of a musical. Of the singers, he alone seemed to regard the songs as individual pieces and not as part of a whole, and he engaged with Cohen’s poems only on a literal level. It would be too harsh to say he missed the point of both the music and the libretto, because he wasn’t terrible, but it wouldn’t be true to say he fully grasped it, either.

He wasn’t helped by the sound mixing. The concert was amplified (a sensible move at the Michael Fowler), and generally the levels were just right; but Erat’s voice was nearly allowed to drown Keeling’s at a couple of points, especially when their respective harmonics drifted into bareness amid complexity, as Glass calls for often. Also, some of the melodic percussion was unfortunately allowed to slip under forever. There is something positive to be taken from my quibble with Erat’s manner: that he was out of place with both the music and the libretto, and that the other singers weren’t, suggests that the music and libretto were well in place with each other; meaning that the collaboration of Glass with Cohen was a success. This is certainly the impression I left with, and judging by the applause at the end, it was an impression I shared with much of the sell-out crowd.

9 March, 2008, at the Michael Fowler Centre.
Music by Philip Glass; Libretto and Images by Leonard Cohen
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About the Author ()

BK Drinkwater's actual origins are shrouded in mystery, but it is said that he sprang from the summit of Taranaki fully formed, four days after the birth of Aristotle. He resents having been overshadowed in this way.

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