Fall Arts: The year we turned to Glass

Appomattox premieres in a fall filled with classical tributes

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Philip Glass fans are getting ready to camp out in San Francisco this fall.

The most influential composer of the late 20th century, Glass marked his 70th birthday Jan. 31, but the celebration continues throughout the fall in the Bay Area with concerts presented by SF Performances, Stanford University's Lively Arts, the OtherMinds Festival, the SF Conservatory of Music, and the Cabrillo Festival in Santa Cruz in what has essentially become an ad hoc Glass festival.

At the center of this pan-Bay series of performances, recitals, lectures, and seminars will be the world premiere of Glass's Appomattox, a major new commission by the San Francisco Opera. Set to a libretto by British playwright Christopher Hampton, the two-act Appomattox dramatizes the eponymous historical battle of the American Civil War and the events leading to the surrender of Confederate general Robert<\!s>E. Lee to US general Ulysses<\!s>S. Grant.

With a loss of 600,000 lives, the Civil War is easily the most devastating event in US history — but what have we learned? "The issues that were raised at the time are very much at the heart of social change in our country today: states' rights, racism, you name it," Glass said recently from his home in Nova Scotia. "On the good side, we are still engaged in resolving these issues. That is one of the great things about our country, that we haven't shied away from the issues. We embraced the difficulties as we tried to find solutions. We had some measures of success and some not. But [these issues] never stopped being relevant, because they were never resolved."

Glass's previous operas, such as Einstein on the Beach, Satyagraha, and Akhnaten, exude brilliant ideas and a sense of innovation, and in tandem with multimedia and experimental projects such as the high-profile cinematic Qatsi trilogy, they earned him a place among the 20th century's great iconoclasts — not to mention a spot in the punch line to a joke on The Simpsons.

Yet Glass continues to evolve. With Appomattox, the composer has chosen a historical topic that lends itself to an arched yet linear narrative leading to a well-defined climax. And judging from his newer works, his compositional style has acquired a surprisingly lush lyricism. One might suspect Appomattox of being Glass's first opera in grand 19th-century style, although the composer reassured those who fear he might be softening with age, "It is going to be a very confrontational piece. Some of the elements will be quite difficult for some people."

One such element is Appomattox's score, which integrates Old Testament hymns sung by black Southerners to welcome Abraham Lincoln during his visit to Richmond, Va.; military songs by the Arkansas First Brigade; and civil rights ballads.

"I wanted to include in the musical language the feeling and the musical culture of that time and of the present time," Glass explained. "While this was written for voices skilled in operatic singing, there are other kinds of music in this opera as well. This was for me one of the most interesting things, to try to bring together different music that would normally not be heard at the same time."<\!s>*


"Music of Philip Glass" Joined by cellist Wendy Sutter, Glass takes to the ivories in a recital of his chamber music, including the local premieres of "Songs and Poems for Cello," Etudes nos. 2 and 10, and "The Orchard for Piano and Cello."

Sept. 28. (415) 392-2545, www.performances.org


Oct. 5–<\d>24.

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