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Arts Festival Review: Book of Longing

Arts Festival Review: Book of Longing

Review by Robbie Ellis

Book of Longing
Philip Glass (music), Leonard Cohen (lyrics and images)
Sunday 9 March 2008
Michael Fowler Centre longing

While I wouldn't go as far as to say that Philip Glass has a set formula for knocking out new works, Book of Longing (which premièred in June of last year) did sound pretty derivative: at least it sounded a hell of a lot like what he's written in the past. I don't think that's a bad thing: Mr Glass appears to be very comfortable in his own musical skin and doesn't feel the need to change. Good on him.

If he does have a formula, I'd say it works for a lot of the public. His pre-concert talk packed the Ilott Theatre to standing-room only; the concert itself packed the Michael Fowler Centre to capacity at hefty ticket prices. The audience that was there was definitely receptive to what he had to offer.

Book of Longing the book is a collection of 120 poems by Leonard Cohen, and Book of Longing the piece is a musical setting of 22 of them. Although Cohen is a songwriter and performer himself, he was not involved in the word-setting at any level - the music is entirely Philip Glass's. It certainly bore his imprint: repeated two-note ostinatos (a throwback to the minimalism on which he made his name) were very prominent. Textures were very static: the bass took the long notes; the cello and violin took the ostinatos; the winds took the stabs; and the keyboards (played by musical director Michael Riesman and Philip Glass himself) fleshed out the harmony and performed the semiquaver shredding (to borrow a term from metal guitar playing). The instruments seldom varied these roles; although some of Glass's percussion writing mixed up the stylistic influences a bit (I detected hints of African and Pacific rhythms in there). All in all, the textures were classic Glass - luscious and a delight to behold. They didn't change a lot though.

Harmonically speaking it was uncomplicated. Glass obviously doesn't feel any pressure to stray very far from the basics of major and minor keys. There was little musical information to process - very few complex melodies or harmonies which might have stood out and obscured the voices (although instruments did have some solo moments - more on these below).

There were four solo voices (soprano, alto, tenor and bass) - their accents were distinctly American so the style was not operatic or bel canto, but neither was it Broadway: the primary focus appeared to be word clarity. Like the instrumental writing, the vocal writing was quite monolithic: single notes or block chords which stayed static until the next chord change. There were no diva moments and no showmanship in the vocal part. The only times I saw anything approaching dramatic action or exuberance were two bars of toned-down Eddie van Halen leg-kicking from tenor Will Erat, and a touching musical transformation when Erat and soprano Dominique Plaisant were in a half-embrace and singing in unison - the only unharmonised non-solo singing in the whole work. Despite this restraint Erat, Plaisant, bass-baritone Daniel Keeling and mezzo Tara Hugo were very watchable.

The movements of Book of Longing were structured in a way to keep variety through the performance, and variety is essential if you wish to programme 100 minutes without an interval. There were recordings of Leonard Cohen's distinctive basso profundo reading some of the shorter poems, there were settings of his longer poems for the singers in that typical Glass sound (this made up the majority of the work), and there were instrumental solos. All of these solos departed from the established harmony to varying degrees, and it meant players could show a bit of personality. Cellist Wendy Sutter was impeccable in her performance of Glass meets Bach; and violinist Timothy Vain was an arresting sight in his performance of Glass meets Bruch meets Satriani - his movement on stage was wonderful to watch, and his tone didn't suffer since his violin was on a radio mike with such beautiful tone through the PA. It makes me wish that concerto soloists in orchestral settings could be miked too, in order that they might move and dance around. They could even play with their back to the audience at times! It could work!

Visuals played a role in the work: drawings by Leonard Cohen from Book of Longing were projected onto a screen. In keeping with a lot of the poems being about women, quite a number of the drawings were of naked females - methinks Mr Cohen has a fondness for breasts. Another interesting element was the "choreography": although there was nothing I would classify as dance, the movements of the singers on, off and around the stage were planned and co-ordinated by a dance choreographer - the movement provided a further point of interest to focus on in the absence of much changing harmony and texture.

Performance-wise, I can't fault a thing. The musicians were consummate professionals. The singers were superb - all of the harmony was luscious and the word clarity was top-notch: out of a very long libretto I only missed two or three words. The sound quality was amazing and the mix through the front-of-house PA was as clear as a bell. From beginning to end, Book of Longing kept my attention: I didn't nod off or even feel tempted to. I just wish that the performance of the work hadn't been so austere to go with the ultra-consistent stylistic feel. I guess this is what Philip Glass wanted. There were moments where some performers gave hints of breaking out of the monolithic texture, but they never strayed very far. There was next to no exuberance or drama - even though every texture sounded beautiful; there was plenty of energy; and the performances were first rate.

No envelopes were pushed last night - and I imagine Philip Glass is very content about that. All you Glass junkies will have loved it - I was sitting next to a fanboy who was riveted. All you Glass-haters will have stayed away - rightly so, since you didn't miss much. I've always been a Glass ambivalent, but am I glad I came to see it? You bet.


Book of Longing on the Arts Festival website
Scoop Full Coverage: Arts Festival 2008

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