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Thursday, November 3, 2011

Concert Review: Existential Park

Philip Glass and the New York Philharmonic play Koyaanisqatsi
Welcome to Vega$. An image from Koyaanisqatsi.
The year 2011 marks the 75th birthday of composer Philip Glass. As part of the celebrations, Wednesday night's New York Philharmonic concert at Avery Fisher Hall featured a complete performance of Mr. Glass' 1982 score for Koyanisqatsi: Life Out of Balance, the powerful film by Godfrey Reggio. The performance featured the celebrated orchestra, the Philip Glass Ensemble and the Collegiate Chorale.

Koyaanisqatsi is a meditation on the imbalances of modern life. It is assembled footage, dating from just before its 1982 release to documentary footage and stock imagery dating all the way back to a NASA film from 1962. Although it is only 86 minutes long, time speeds, slows and bends in upon itself as the images fly by. The images range widely: staring pedestrians shot on the street, cars and televisions being assembled, and the most famous, iconic shots: clouds racing across mirror-front skyscrapers.

At the Wednesday night performance, Avery Fisher Hall was darkened. The film was shown above the black-clad orchestra in its entirety. Below, Philip Glass Ensemble director Michael Riesman conducted from a laptop, which displayed the sheet music and a running data-stream of the film footage in the background.

The accompanying score opens with a Bach-like figure played repeatedly, accompanying a bass voice chanting the title over and over. This gives way to surging chorales of horns and human voices singing prophecies in the Hopi language. The effect is hypnotic, and more powerful when combined with Mr. Reggio's potent film. Early images featured the demolition of an abandoned St. Louis housing project. You could almost feel the unease from a New York audience trying not to think of the fate of the World Trade Center.

Like other composers who prefer a place deep in the harmony over taking the lead, Mr. Glass played the second keyboard part. The Philharmonic lent power and depth to the score, creating resonant sonic pictures that worked perfectly with the film. Impressive playing came from the brass and low strings, particularly the cellos led by Carter Brey.

Koyaanisqatsi seems amorphous on its first approach, but this performance revealed a definite structure of the film in a series of acts. The most powerful passage was the high-speed footage of cars hurtling at night through the streets of Los Angeles and New York. This was contrasted with the slow images of pedestrians, staring men and women, and even a man shaving with a disposable razor.

Although the point of this work is serious, much of the sonic trickery and visual jazz of this film is light in nature. Perhaps that is because the stock footage from Koyaanisqatsi has been referenced over 20+ years of The Simpsons: the rising moon, the racing cars, even the shots of hot dogs and Hostess Twinkies being manufactured.

Players and film were at their most serious for Mr. Glass' final crescendo, labeled "Prophecies" on the album. This music accompanied footage of a failed 1962 NASA test flight. The shots of the exploding Atlas rocket  ended the evening in a dramatic, powerful crescendo, showing the folly and insignificance of man's existence before the credits rolled.
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Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.