SANTA CRUZ - Human history is characterized by random sequences of
progress and regression... sometimes, confusingly, a combination of
Example of mostly progress: a bet over horses in the 1850s led
directly to the technology that made the remake of "The Planet of the
Apes" possible a century and a half later.
Example of undeniable regression: Marin Alsop, who 20 years ago played
the violin in the Brooklyn Academy of Music premiere of Philip Glass'
"The Photographer," tonight conducted the work's West Coast premiere
at the opening of the 38th annual Cabrillo Music Festival here.
The connection: the hero of Glass' opera/"mixed media
work"/"experience" is Eadweard Muybridge (nee Edward James
Muggeridge), who might have had a problem spelling his own name right,
but did something very important - he invented photo sequences, which
decided the bet in favor of those who said all four of a galloping
horse's legs leave the ground at times. More importantly, he
introduced a concept leading directly to MOVING pictures. and all
those felicitous movie remakes of the Summer of 2001.
Speaking of regression, it's rather sad to contemplate that this
unique, brave and important festival of contemporary music -
associated with Lou Harrison (one of the festival's founders), Carlos
Chavez, Aaron Copland, Dennis Russell Davies (music director here for
16 years), so many others - would end up with such a thoroughly
wretched attempt at music drama.
Perhaps that's too harsh. In truth, the piece lacks only music and
drama; otherwise, it's fun. Stage director Michael Scarola and a
hard-working staff cleaned up an incomprehensible, faux-Gertrude Stein
libretto (by Robert Malasch), and they obtained a great collection of
Muybridge works to project throughout the evening.
Still, as the 75-minute work unfolded - it feels about three times
that length - I couldn't help recalling a strangely pertinent San
Francisco event this week. At the opening of the "Ansel Adams at 100"
exhibit at MoMA, a faulty air-conditioning fan's belt kept clicking
against some obstacle. There are works by Glass I appreciate,
especially the "Cocteau operas" and the great soundtrack for
"Mishima," but "The Photographer" music is mostly that of a faulty fan
belt, something that makes ostinato. well. repetitious. The amazing
thing was that the festival orchestra, under Alsop's precise and
committed direction, performed exceptionally well. Alsop's own violin
solo made this early throwaway Glass sound almost like real music.
Those poor nine singers in the chorus struggled through,
pa-pa-pa-ta-ta-ta, lame at first, even heavily miked, but with good
diction, hanging on through cruel and pointless requirements, barely
able to finish. My heart goes out to them.
What is even worse than the "music" is the incongruously complete lack
of drama. Glass and his librettist apparently modeled the piece after
"The Drunkard," but couldn't quite duplicate the theatrical
"substance" of 19th century American melodrama - however much fun may
be obtained from the genre in the hands of high schools and amateur
drama companies in small rural communities.
In spite of the enormous potential in Muybridge's story, "The
Photographer" provides NOTHING. No information about, no explanation
for the man's character or his accomplishments, no description,
portrayal, insight, character development. nada! You see the pictures,
witness an amateur play about Muybridge killing his wife's lover and
his subsequent acquittal (the chorus acting as jury), some
"pictures-come-to-life" scenes (which go on forever and mean nothing),
and a lengthy, pointless and unlovely dance segment, choreographed by
Call it opera, "a mixed media work" (as the program does) or an
"experience" (Alsop's word for it) - any music drama needs music and
drama. "The Photographer" comes up way short in the former, scoring an
infuriating zero for the latter.
But hope spring eternal: among upcoming festival programs, Saturday's
Jennifer Higdon-John Adams-Christopher Rouse concert is a good bet;
the festival-closing San Juan Bautista Mission program even better:
the US premiere of James McMillan's Second Symphony, the West Coast
premiere of Rouse's "Rapture," and Einojuhani Rautavaara's "Angel of
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