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[whitespace] Minimalist Muybridge

The Cabrillo Music Festival tackled Philip Glass' 'The Photographer' on its opening weekend, but it was John Adams who stole the thunder

By Scott MacClelland

Philip Glass' music goes with anything. Actually that's a requirement. By itself, its obsessive minimalist repetitiveness tends to numb the mind and stupefy the senses. But connected to something else--it doesn't much matter what--it works like MSG in Asian cooking, "enhancing" the flavors through chemistry. One orchestra member told me, "It's not music to listen to. It's wallpaper."

The Glass score for The Photographer, a mixed-media performance piece witnessed last Saturday (Aug. 4) in its Cabrillo Music Festival premiere, could have been a soundtrack to a documentary on an automobile assembly line, a month inside an ant colony or an aerial view of the Tour de France. If you thought you had heard the music before somewhere, you had. Where is not important.

This alchemy of this particular recycled Glass bore the smell of the darkroom, owing to its nominal subject matter, the pioneering 19th-century photographer Eadweard Muybridge (nee Edward Muggeridge). Undoubtedly, the man's story makes for an unusually compelling subject, primarily for his having pointed the way toward the creation of motion pictures and, secondarily, for his premeditated murder of his wife's lover and acquittal of the crime by a jury.

David Byrne's libretto, A Gentleman's Honor, gave the work its first act, a recounting of the love triangle, the photographer's anguish, the murder and trial. Like the music, the words also underwent repetition, in the mouths of actors Fred Ochs, Jack Kellogg, Micah Epstein, Nathan Aaron Place, Sara Kraft and, in the title role, Michael Needham. Under stage director Michael Scarola, their performance was a high point of the production.

Marin Alsop kept mighty busy conducting a motoring score that never sounded as if it needed a conductor, then took up her violin for repeating solo licks in Act 2 that featured a montage of Muybridge photography, both still and set in motion, fashioned by video artist Suzanne St. John and graphics artist Gaben Chancellor.

Act 3 featured dancers Deanna Ross, James Brenneman III and Joseph Gilman Pikalek, who reenacted the love triangle of Act 1 in a skillful choreography by Maria Basile. (These three had previously appeared as living recreations of Muybridge's still images.) Jude Navari's vocal ensemble were impressively stretched by Glass' use of them as stuttering instrumental colors.

Broad Arc of Imagination

In the Saturday-night program, at any given point, moment to moment, composers John Adams and Christopher Rouse reduced Glass to a footnote. Adam's 30-minute Fearful Symmetries is as heavily committed to minimalism as virtually all of Glass. But where Glass goes in endless little circles, Adams moves across a broad arc of imagination and development.

Indeed, he establishes an idea, lets it flower according to its potential, then moves to the next idea and its own unfolding. Later, he refers back to themes already introduced. These classical procedures give his use of minimal technique coherence and the architectural elements that provide for a detailed memory of the music after it stops. Four saxophones and synthesizer keyboards complemented the orchestra, which, at times, sounded like a really big big band.

Rouse's Violin Concerto of 1991, which evidently has never been recorded, proved to be a knockout in concertmaster Yumi Hwang-Williams' virtuoso performance. Not only did her reading maintain high brilliance, but it did so with smooth technique and full-throated tone.

Rouse eschews minimalism, preferring tried-and-true classical architecture for his forms. As with the many other Rouse works chosen by Alsop over the years, this one turned out to be another winner.

Half of the two-movement piece was a Barcarolle whose rocking motion was neatly fitted to a haunting theme introduced on the solo violin. Alternate materials burst in with thundering force launched from the drums or, as Alsop described them, "insane" chatterings in the winds and brass. At last, the opening theme engaged the full orchestra in a chorale of splendid sonority and breadth.

The second movement, Toccata, was a classical rondo, virtuosic, filled with contrasting ideas and culminating in a sizzling solo cadenza.

The program opened with Jennifer Higdon's Fanfare Ritmico, composed for the millennium and designed to represent the ever-faster pace of daily life. Colorful and orchestrally resourceful, the piece did not give its multitude of ideas enough space to "set" in the mind, but skittered off the next one helter skelter. The work delivered as promised but proved as ephemeral as cotton candy.

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From the August 8-15, 2001 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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