Pre-concert talk for Philip Glass concert at Carnegie Hall

(Here’s my pre-concert lecture delivered at 7 p.m. last Saturday in New York. Due to a change in plans, it wasn’t actually given in Carnegie Hall, but across the street in a meeting room at the Park Central Hotel.)

Carnegie talk

Hi everyone,

Welcome to Carnegie Hall. I’m Tim Mangan, Pacific Symphony’s writer-in-residence, and I’m going to give a short talk on the program we’re about to hear, hoping to prepare you for it. But first I’d like to talk a little about Carnegie Hall itself, because it, too, is going to be very much part of the experience.

Carnegie Hall opened on May 5, 1891. The original program had Walter Damrosch conducting the New York Symphony playing “America,” Beethoven’s “Leonore” Overture No. 3 and the New York premiere of Berlioz’s Te Deum, with the Oratorio Society joining. The special guest of the evening was Tchaikovsky. Damrosch had wanted him to compose a new march for the occasion, but instead he just used his Coronation March that he wrote for the coronation of Tsar Alexander III, giving it a different title, Marche solennelle, hoping that no one would notice that it was an earlier piece. Tchaikovsky conducted it himself that night. The story goes that the march was recognized as the Coronation March and this pleased the composer, who said that American audiences knew his music better than the Russians did.

(Incidentally, on the same trip to America, Tchaikovsky also visited the Peabody Conservatory of Music in Baltimore — the alma mater of tonight’s featured composer Philip Glass, and my alma mater too.) 

The hall was at first called just Music Hall (founded by Andrew Carnegie) but soon, at the start of the 1894-95 season, it was officially changed to Carnegie Hall. But if you go out front and look up, those words — Music Hall founded by Andrew Carnegie — are still there, etched in the building above the entrance. Andrew Carnegie was one of the richest men in the world at the time, an industrialist who spent the latter part of his life as a philanthropist, funding this hall and of course Carnegie libraries around the country.

Carnegie Hall is unusual in that it has welcomed all kinds of performers almost from the beginning, so it it not just a classical music shrine. Many significant — and insignificant — jazz, folk and pop performers have appeared here. In 1890, Andrew Carnegie, when laying the cornerstone said, “All causes may find a place here.” And so many speakers have appeared here as well, including people like Jack London, Winston Churchill, Mark Twain, Booker T. Washington and Jerry Seinfeld. As said, there aren’t too many venues like it anywhere. In terms of the variety and stature of those who have performed here, surprisingly perhaps, but I think the Hollywood Bowl comes closest in comparison.

The great orchestras of the world, and of the country, started making regular visits to the hall soon after its opening. The New York Philharmonic made its home here for decades. And for orchestras around the country, a Carnegie Hall debut has long been a kind of rite of passage, a sign of maturity and respect. The hall, in fact, can be rented by anyone with the means to do so — so a trip to Carnegie doesn’t always mean what it seems to mean. But for tonight’s concert, Carnegie Hall invited Pacific Symphony to play this Philip Glass program — no renting going on here — so it is truly an honor and well deserved.

Beyond all that, though, and the most important thing to me and most people who come to Carnegie Hall to hear a concert are the acoustics. I’ve heard three orchestral concerts here and each time I’ve been struck by the quality of the sound, not quite like any other hall I’ve been in. It’s the aural equivalent of being wrapped in a soft, warm blanket and sitting back in an easy chair and yet, also, the sounds are clear and distinct. There’s no mushiness to the sound; you can hear all the instruments in the orchestra. There are a few reasons why this is so, but one big one is the massive materials used in the hall’s construction — the surfaces reflect rather than absorb the sounds. Acoustician Russell Johnson used some of the elements in Carnegie when he designed Segerstrom Concert Hall, including heavy materials in floors and walls.

***

The first piece on the program tonight is “Meetings Along the Edge.” It’s from a longer work called “Passages,” which was a collaboration between Glass and the great Indian sitar player and composer Ravi Shankar.

Glass met Shankar for the first time in 1965 in Paris. The young American composer, in his late 20s, was still a student, working with the legendary Nadia Boulanger. The Indian sitarist and composer was already a master but virtually unknown in the West. He was composing the film score to “Chappaqua” and needed a Western musician to notate the music so that French musicians could play it. 

This was easier said than done. “I had to solve the problem of notating the music,” Glass has said. “I had to write his melodies down in a way that Western musicians could play but would reflect the actual rhythmic nuances of what he was writing.” Glass was immersed in mastering the compositional styles of Bach and Mozart with Boulanger at the time. He had never encountered Indian music before, and did not understand what he was hearing.

After several failed attempts, Glass made an intuitive leap and removed the bar lines — a fundamental organizational and metrical nomenclature in Western music — from what he had written, and discovered what he had missed before in Shankar’s music. Patterns. Shankar’s music, Indian music, was structured through rhythmic patterns and repetition. Glass found a cycle of 16 notes, called a taal, that flowed over bar lines, unknown in Western music.

Glass immediately started experimenting with it in his own music and found his own voice. Western classical music at the time had become arcane and dissonant, and organized chiefly through harmonic means. Glass now began focusing instead on rhythmic structure and simple harmonies — the building blocks of minimalism. One could make the case that minimalism was the single most important development in Western art music after World War II and that it saved Western art music by revealing a new path. The meeting of Glass and Shankar becomes, in this scenario, a seminal moment in music history.

Shankar went on to collaborate with Yehudi Menuhin and Jean-Pierre Rampal and George Harrison and become a worldwide celebrity. Glass became the most widely performed and prolific of the minimalists. And while his music draws upon many sources, it would not be the same without Shankar’s influence. With their Carnegie Hall concert, Carl St.Clair and Pacific Symphony celebrate this important and fruitful meeting of East and West.

“Meetings Along the Edge” is a perfect way to open the program. It is written by both Shankar and Glass. In this case, Shankar provided two themes and Glass provided one and arranged the piece. It’s a lively allegro — the first theme is Shankar, it sounds “Middle Eastern” says one program note writer, and it’s in 7 — 7 beats to a bar, unusual. The second theme is also by Shankar and also in 7.  Then Glass adds an idea in 4 — after the uneven feel of the 7 beats, you’ll hear the music smooth out in its flow a little. These themes are combined at the end of the piece, which lasts about 8 minutes. The scoring is flute, two soprano saxophones, one percussionist (who plays snare drum with brushes, woodblock and tambourine, among other instruments) and strings. 

[***Sitar concerto No. 3***] 

Next on the concert comes Ravi Shankar’s Concerto No. 3 for Sitar and Orchestra. This, believe it or not, will not be its premiere in Carnegie Hall — Anoushka Shankar, Ravi’s daughter and tonight’s soloist, played it here in 2009 with the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, which commissioned it.

Ravi wrote it especially for Anoushka, who he had taught to play sitar since she was a child. He wrote it by singing the phrases to her and she would play them back on the sitar — she learned the piece by ear. It is fully scored and notated now though, as it would have to be with so many players.

The piece is in three movements and lasts about 26 minutes, and it’s vibrant and lively and gorgeous and very approachable. Some of it sounds Indian, for sure, but by no means does all of it. If you keep an open mind (or ear), you’ll hear a folk music quality in it that could be from anywhere. Myself, I heard a lot of Scottish sounding music in it and a spot or two of Aaron Copland.

Nevertheless, it is based on Indian classical music. Anoushka Shankar said of this piece: “My father writes music that is so intertwined with our ancient Indian classical music style that I really feel connected with our culture when I perform it.”

It is scored for lots of single instruments — piccolo, flute, oboe, English horn, clarinet, bassoon, French horn, trumpet — percussion: timpani, cymbals, triangle, wood blocks, xylophone, bongos — harp, string section and sitar solo.

Most of you are probably familiar with the sitar, but let me refresh your memory. It is a very old Indian plucked string instrument. It has many strings, but most of them are sympathetic strings, (11 to 13) — that is they just vibrate IN SYMPATHY with the plucked strings, like when you play a note on the piano with the pedal down and you hear the other strings ringing. The frets on the neck are curved and the melody strings lie on top of them and with finger pressure can be stretched over the fret so that the tone is bent. 

There are six or seven of these plucked strings, and 3 or 4 of them are drones — depending on the type of sitar. They play the same tones at all times; they drone like a bagpipe drones. The resonance chamber is gourd-shaped; sometimes there’s a second gourd at the other end of the neck as well. The neck is hollow, and contributes to the resonance. All of these strings can be tuned, including the sympathetic strings in the neck; you’ll see the tuning pegs up and down the neck; those are for the sympathetic strings.

The player of the sitar sits on the floor with legs crossed in a particular way, usually — or always? — barefoot. I never seen it played another way.

I really don’t feel I need to say much more about this piece — it is very enjoyable and wonderfully rhythmic and lovely from the first listening.

***

The big piece on the program is of course “The Passion of Ramakrishna” by Philip Glass. This was a co-commission of the Pacific Symphony and the Nashville Symphony and it was given its premiere on the second night of opening concerts at the Renee and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall, in September of 2006. Later that same season, Carl St.Clair traveled to Nashville and conducted it there. Then, in 2011, when Carl was featuring Glass in the annual American Composers Festival, he revived “Ramakrishna” and at that time he and the orchestra recorded it. The recording was issued on Glass’s own label, Orange Mountain Music. I don’t know of any other performances of the piece, and tonight’s performance is significant: It’s the New York premiere.

It is scored for an orchestra of 2 flutes, piccolo, 2 oboes (second doubling English horn), 2 clarinets, (second doubling Eb clarinet), bass clarinet, 2 bassoons; 4 French horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba; timpani, percussion — 4 players(TKTK)— harp, keyboard (piano and celesta); and strings, as well as choir and 5 vocal soloists.

I say it’s the big piece on the program, but it’s not really that big, especially as Passion settings go. “Ramakrishna” is a succinct 40 minutes long. Depending on the performance Bach’s “St. Matthew Passion” is around 3 hours long and his “St. John Passion” is around 2 hours. Penderecki’s St. Luke Passion is more than an hour long; Arvo Part’s “St. John Passion” is also a little more than an hour in length.

In an interview, St.Clair told me that Glass had originally envisioned “The Passion of Ramakrishna” as an evening-length piece. But those initial plans fell through and Carl approached Glass again when he needed a piece for the second night of Segerstrom Concert Hall. Only since Midori was playing Beethoven’s Violin Concerto on the first half, St.Clair needed it to be a shorter piece that could fit comfortably on the second half. And so Glass obliged.

What exactly is a Passion? In music, it is generally a setting of part of one the Gospels, the section narrating the events leading up to and including the Crucifixion. But the archaic meaning of the word Passion means “suffering” or “martyrdom,” so Glass’s use of it here is entirely fitting, as his piece narrates the last days and death of the 19th-century Hindu mystic and holy man Ramakrishna.

I think the piece is all the better for being short — it packs a punch. Glass uses the actual words of Ramakrishna himself and of his followers, as recorded in a book called “The Gospel of Ramakrishna,” still very much in print and available on Amazon in several editions, including one with an introduction by Aldous Huxley.

Who was Ramakrishna? Let Philip Glass, a devotee of Indian thought and practices, describe him:

“Sri Ramakrishna was born on February 18, 1836 in Kamarpukur, a village in rural Bengal. As a young man he took up service in the temple dedicated to Kali, The Divine Mother, at Dakshineswar, a village about ten miles north of Calcutta in those years. There he remained for the rest of his life, dying in the early hours of Monday, August 16, 1886. The Kali temple at Dakshineswar is still there today, but is now surrounded by an ever-expanding and bustling Calcutta. By coincidence, it stands not far from the place established for the work and residence of the late Mother Teresa. Ramakrishna’s home remains there, still embodying his spirit and worth a visit by anyone interested in knowing about his life and work.

“As a young man, he was largely self-taught, having absorbed knowledge of the ancient tradition of India through reading and hearing the religious stories in the Puranas as well as his association with the holy men, pilgrims and wandering monks who would stop at Kamarpukur on their way to Puri and other holy places. In time he became famous throughout India for his ability to expound and elucidate the most subtle aspects of that profound and vast tradition. It was not uncommon in the years of his maturity for pundits from all over India to come and “test” his knowledge. Invariably, they were astonished by the ease and eloquence with which he addressed their questions. It appeared that his first-hand spiritual experiences were more than adequate when it came to explaining the scriptures of ancient India. In this way he was able to remove all doubt about their meaning and, indeed, his own authority.” [end quote]

In other words, Ramakrishna was very much a real person, not a mythical one. There’s a Wikipedia article on him and there’s more than one photograph of him. Here is a quote of his, rather beautiful I think, just to give you the flavor:

“He is born in vain who, having attained the human birth, so difficult to get, does not attempt to realize God in this very life.”

You’ll find out a little more about him as you listen to the piece.

The Passion of Ramakrishna is in 6 movements — a Prologue, Parts 1-4, which are like scenes, and an Epilogue, after Ramakrishna’s death. In addition to Ramakrishna, there are several other characters: Someone called “M,” who is the Narrator and Mahendranath Gupta, the author of the Gospel of Ramakrishna; Sarada Devi, the wife of Ramakrishna; Dr. Sarkar (his doctor); and a First Devotee and a Second Devotee.

Ingeniously, Glass has the entire choir sing the part of Ramakrishna, while the other characters are performed by solo singers. This gives the words of Ramakrisha a special force and feel, a little distance and mystery too, I think. Here are some of the words he (the choir) sings in the piece:

“The Divine Mother revealed to me in the Kali temple

That it is SHE who had become everything.

The image was Consciousness,

The water-vessels were Consciousness,

The door-sill was Consciousness,

I myself was Consciousness —

I found everything soaked in Bliss —

The Bliss of Satchidananda.”

Glass has a wonderful way of setting these words and all the words in The Passion to music. He uses one note per syllable and the rhythms he uses match the rhythm, or come close, of the words if they were spoken. 

So, for example, the Prologue, an evocation of the goddess Kali, starts with these words:

“Who is this Woman, who lights the field of 

battle?” 

This is pretty much his method of text setting throughout the piece, and it lends real clarity and directness to the words. This is kind of a non-fiction Passion, by the way, because all of the words are real quotes from real people.

The musical style here is minimalism and fairly typical Philip Glass, repeating rhythms, simple harmonies, shifting emphases. Together with his word-setting here, it is very effective in putting the drama front and center, and the emotion as well. It’s almost as if Glass, with the music, is highlighting and underlining or following the curve of the drama. I think the best way to listen to The Passion is to have the libretto in your lap, and follow it word for word. You’ll feel Glass’s music shadowing them, stirring them, supporting them — and staying out of their way at the same time. It’s like the words are a boat and Glass’ music is a river on which the boat sails.

Here’s an interesting thing Glass said about his music in his memoir, Words Without Music. He’s talking about his opera Einstein on the Beach, but the words apply equally to Ramakrishna as well:

“Something I have known from the beginning of my work in theater is that music is the unifying force that will take the viewer-spectator from the start through to the end, whether in opera, theater, dance or film. This force doesn’t come from images, movement, or words. If you watch television and put on different records, with different music, the same images will look different. Now, try it the other way around. Keep the music the same and change the channels. The integrity of the energy remains in the music and changing the image doesn’t alter that fact. People in the theater very rarely understand that, but Bob Wilson does. Any good theater piece, even one from Shakespeare or Beckett that wouldn’t seem to need lifting, would benefit from a good score.”

Well, with Ramakrishna, Glass got a good libretto, and he has given it a good and fitting score. I hope you all enjoy it tonight. I heard it in rehearsal this afternoon — as did Glass — and it’s ready for us.

-30-

2 thoughts on “Pre-concert talk for Philip Glass concert at Carnegie Hall

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