As the lights dimmed, a photographic image from the street outside – low red-brick commercial buildings, with shiny white skyscrapers towering above them – was splashed across two walls framing a corner. It was exactly then that I realized I’d made a mistake taking a seat upstairs in the balcony…
…and, sure enough, when the singing commenced, it came from vocalists seated incognito throughout the audience area. No one rose. No spotlight blared to discriminate between participants and observers. If you didn’t see the faint illumination emitted by iPads bearing musical scores, you might not have known exactly which of your neighbors was singing.
If, under the circumstances, the gesture wasn’t altogether unforeseeable, the result was uncanny nonetheless. Glass’s music moved as it does (or did at that point in his career, anyway): rippling and undulating arpeggios rose and fell, rose and fell, rose and fell, shifting in direction with a rapidity that showed Glass was already moving away decisively from pure long-form minimalism. Now and again, triplet rhythms seemed to convey an appealing oom-pah-pah waltz-time rusticity.
Providing drama during the first half of the performance was a tension between Gandelsman’s muscular exertions and the cool, unblemished flow of Choral Chameleon’s singing. During a long pause in near darkness, Gandelsman was escorted offstage and the violist William Frampton came on; when the music resumed, it naturally had a duskier tone ideally suited to the darkening skies projected on the walls. (Here, too, was early evidence of Glass’s penchant for reusing effective material: One particular viola line, thrilling in its vertiginous plunging and soaring, is virtually indistinguishable from a motif that runs through the powerful “Pruitt Igoe” section of Glass’s 1982 score for the film Koyaanisqatsi.)
From a musical perspective, then, A Madrigal Opera addresses a burning question for Glass cognoscenti, and provides a good hour’s rewarding diversion for anyone – especially when performed with this much style and assurance. What made the experience truly memorable, though, was in Schlather’s simple, elegant solution to the burning question the opera poses – engaging audience members in an abstract opera by making them a part of it, literally.
(For another perspective, read Corinna da Fonseca-Wollheim’s review in The New York Times.)