30 September 2019, Brno – music friendly city
The jubilee 50th Moravian Autumn music festival started yesterday at Bobycentrum in Brno with a concert performance of the minimalist opera Einstein on the Beach by composer Philip Glass and director Robert Wilson. The concert version was created by collaboration of visual artist Germaine Kruip, Suzanne Vega and Ictus Ensemble and Collegium Vocale Gent. Although only the music remained from the previously stage show, the length of the concert itself was comparable with the opera work. Hence, the evening lasted almost four hours.
While the visitors slowly drifted into the Bobycentrum hall, ordered drinks and searched for empty seats, the performance was already starting unnoticed on the stage. The musicians wandered ceremoniously around the stage, and the dark and subliminal keyboard sounds rumbled into the hustle of the audience coming in. The very beginning, however, was announced by the sung counting – Glass’s work in fact is not an opera in the traditional sense and lacks a coherent libretto. Singing numbers and solmisation syllables had been originally intended to help singers to remember long and varying melodic and rhythmic series. However, the director of the opera, Robert Wilson, liked them so much that Glass left them in the opera at his request. The only sections of the text that resemble a traditional libretto were written by poet and painter Christopher Knowles with several additions by choreographer Lucinda Childs and actor Samuel M. Johnson. The interpretation of these repetitive, sketchy, sometimes even dreamy sections was performed by American folk singer Suzanne Vega. The singer’s soft and velvety expression, turning here and there into an excited spelling and then a seductive whisper, hypnotically soothed and led the audience almost to the edge of controlled hypnosis. A great interpretative advantage is the fact that Vega herself is a singer and was able not only to work excellently with the pace of the spoken word, but was particularly impressed by the variable diction, which in particular made sure that every subsequent repetition of the phrase: “ all these are the days my friends and these are the days my friends ” gave a fresh and unweary impression.
Although Suzanne Vega deserves all praise, it was primarily the musicians who had to face the rhythmically demanding passages of Glass’s music. Alternating accents, irregular divisions, polyrhythmic surfaces and other difficult interpretation bits from the arsenal of modern music form the core of the compositional language of the composer’s opera. However, the musicians fought through this uneasy piece more than with honour – perfect harmony and rhythmic refinement dominated both the instrumental and the vocal sections. Under the leadership of two conductors Georges-Elio Octors and Tom De Cock and choral conductor Maria van Nieukerken, the artists maintained absolute control over the polyrhythmic fabric Einstein’s on the beach. The singers retained intonation and rhythmic certainty even in the most extreme shapes of Glass’ opera, which at times quite arbitrarily balances between the musical language of artificial music and the language of the contemporary dance electro scene. Some parts deliberately evoked the modernist sounds of a space shuttle, with all its beeps, whistles and grunts. As if it was just about to take off. The overall impression was also enhanced by the excellent lighting by Germaine Kruip, who used the full range of rotating coloured floodlights available at Bobycentrum. The solo performances of violinist Igor Semenoff, who was a motor counterpart of the rest of the ensemble, were also excellent. The (inter-)play of the keyboardists Jean-Luc Fafchamps and Jean-Luc Plouvier can be described as absolutely flawless. Both of them managed their synthesizers without any problems during their fast runs and chord strikes. It was in the places where traditional musical practices and violent influences of electronic music met that the core of the opera lied. Glass’ work synthetically looks at music genres ranging from Renaissance polyphonies to contemporary rave and disco music. It combines all of this into a timeless formation that, even now, more than forty years since its premiere, is brimming with freshness and novelty. The fiftieth season of the Moravian Autumn perhaps could not have wished for a better start!
Einstein on the Beach, a concert performance of the opera
Featuring Suzanne Vega as Narrator
Collegium Vocale Gent and Ictus Ensemble
Conductors Georges-Elie Octors, Tom De Cock
Sunday 29 September, Bobycentrum
Photo by Vojtěch Kába