There is comfort in the news that millenniums don‘t occur very often. The accumulated ”Year 2000“ observances already loom large, and there is no guarantee that the year 2001 — which some sticklers insist is the real turning point — won’t produce a comparable pileup. Add to that this year‘s Bach stuff, the 250th anniversary of his death, which can hardly be said to have passed unnoticed. One composer, the former rice planter and current culture assimilator Tan Dun, has made a cottage industry of churning out big, eclectic, ecumenical anniversary pieces, starting with his Symphony 1997, Heaven, Earth, Mankind for China’s annexing of Hong Kong. For this year‘s celebrations he has produced two major scores: the millennial ”world symphony“ 2000 Today, which was aired on PBS over last New Year’s celebrations and is now at hand on a Sony release, and one of the four big ”Passion“ settings introduced in Germany this past summer for the Bach 250th. If I read the omens correctly, this is also headed for the recording studios and the charts.
But you also can‘t have a millennium without Philip Glass. Now, trailing its own clouds of hoo-hah, comes the Fifth Symphony — or, to note its full title, Symphony No. 5, Requiem, Bardo, Nirmanakaya — unveiled before cheering throngs at the 1999 Salzburg Festival, recorded on a two-disc Nonesuch set released two weeks ago, slated to inaugurate Orange County’s Eclectic Orange Festival in Costa Mesa this very weekend. Mark Swed‘s words from his review of the Salzburg premiere, ”. . . glorious, inspiring . . .,“ fly high on the promotional banners. The very title is calculatedly awesome; if you read the press releases, and the composer’s own invocation, the urge to kneel while listening becomes virtually irresistible. Resistance, however, might be worth the effort.
First, those words: Requiem we already know; Bardo and Nirmanakaya are the Buddhist in-between state and the state of enlightened spiritual rebirth, respectively. In its 12 movements, running just under 100 minutes, a chorus, a children‘s chorus, five vocal soloists and a large orchestra deal with a vast assortment of text fragments from, among other sources, the Tibetan Book of the Dead, aboriginal and African chants, Greek, Hebrew, Sanskrit and indigenous languages, tracing the trajectory of life from pre-Creation to the Apocalypse and beyond. The text reads wonderfully: an amorous fragrance that spans the passions of Hebrew and Bengali, or a Greek vision of Paradise blending into the Hindi. Everything is translated into English, which is the first mistake; it turns a multicolored text into doggerel.
And everything is translated into music by Philip Glass, which is the second mistake. It all melts, alas, into the steady, lukewarm flow of cloying, diatonic harmonic sequences, riding above the obsessive throb of the hemiolas (da-DAH-DAH-da) that are by now the Glassiest of all his tired devices. I have sat enthralled through five complete performances of Einstein on the Beach (at the Met and the Brooklyn Academy) and would gladly do another five; the strength — and, above all, the variety — of this music was and remains spellbinding. Twenty-five years later I hear from Glass — in this new work and in most of his recent output — only tired formulas, undeniably pretty but also pretty blah. There are a few strong moments in this Fifth Symphony, when the solo vocalists rise above the choral muck and provide a momentary wave of contrapuntal energy; one or two of the solo songs might enjoy a life on their own, but they don’t last long. Believe me, I have nothing but envy for those blessed with the power to derive their own Nirmanakaya from this greatly hyped, splendidly packaged new product from the Glass assembly line.
I have nothing but envy, as well, for the sharers of communal ecstasy at Royce Hall Sunday before last, the sellout crowd that whooped and hollered and cheered at the playing of Evgeny Kissin, demanding and being granted encores up the bazooty, probably cheering still. It was 10 years, almost to the day, since the dour Russian with the major hair, then 18, electrified his first American audience at Carnegie Hall — and if he hasn‘t fulfilled the extravagant expectations of that time, he hasn’t wilted away, either, like all those Cliburn contest winners. Who among pianists packs ‘em in these days? Perahia, Pollini, Argerich maybe, Volodos any day now — and Kissin: slim pickings against the current overstock of machine-made teenage violinists.
The fingers were all there that night, and the piano — not Kissin’s much-publicized instrument, not UCLA‘s own, but a local rental — was properly responsive and resonant. But responsive — that’s what I missed through long stretches at this concert. It doesn‘t bother me all that much that Kissin’s way of greeting an audience is to glower like a headwaiter at a client who‘s just requested ketchup. What matters more is the suspicion that he greets his music in the same manner. Beethoven’s ”Tempest“ Sonata went past like the wind; there was none of the fantasy in the first movement, where the piano seems almost to speak in coherent and passionate sentences. I heard impressive fingerwork in Schumann‘s Carnaval, but waited in vain for the smaller portraits in the work — Chiarina, Estrella or Coquette — to wink out at me as Schumann meant them to do. The Brahms F-minor Sonata, its four gnarled, cranky movements clustered around the one exquisite Andante, served Kissin, as expected, as a five-course banquet, and at the end there were bonbons for one and all: Liszt, Chopin, an Albeniz tango and the pure marzipan of half a dozen Johann Strauss waltzes played simultaneously.
Next morning I succumbed to the urge to rerun Richter, the Enigma, Bruno Monsaingeon’s marvelous film (on Warner Music Vision) about Kissin‘s illustrious countryman, the late Sviatoslav Richter, full of wisdom both in the great pianist’s playing and in his reminiscences. I thought back to hearing Richter at Carnegie Hall in 1960, his first time in New York, where, like Kissin 30 years later, he had arrived preceded by ecstatic word of mouth and long lines at the box office. Will Kissin grow into the kind of poetic insights that established Richter as a supremely wise and cherishable musician? Or will he be content to let his fingers do the walking, as they do so remarkably already? Man or machine? For all its irresistible flash, Kissin‘s concert was about wheels going around, which — as in the somewhat similar case of Philip Glass’ new symphony, come to think of it — is not exactly what I think of as music.