Philip Glass Ensemble

Philip Glass: Monsters of Grace

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Monsters of Grace, the 1997 Philip Glass/Robert Wilson collaboration, marked a new direction for Wilson; this opera consisted of an animated film accompanied by singers in the pit with the instrumentalists rather than on-stage. Difficulties in communicating Wilson's vision to the animators left both collaborators dissatisfied with the result, and the opera hasn't established itself as one of their most performed works, but regardless of the work's future as a theater piece, it's good to have a recording that preserves the music. The texts are based on Coleman Barks' translations of the poetry of Jeleluddin Rumi, the thirteenth century Sufi poet. There is no traditional narrative arc or any apparent relationship of the texts to the title of the piece, but each of Rumi's poems is a miracle of astonishing imagination. Glass' orchestration convincingly incorporates a Middle Eastern sound in its imitation of string and wind instruments of the region, giving the piece a regional specificity that's not present in the "character" operas of his trilogy. His text setting in English is uneven; the opening song, "Where Everything Is Music," is awkwardly set, but others are completely convincing. The songs in which he uses more than one voice, or which are conceived chorally, are generally more effective than the solo songs. His setting of "Like This," one of Rumi's most celebrated poems, is entirely graceful, transcendently lovely, and profound. It's the most conventionally "Glassian" music in the opera, and easily the musical high point; it's also proof that the expressive possibilities of the composer's trademark idiom are far from exhausted. Glass' stellar ensemble is joined by the excellent vocal quartet of Marie Mascari, Alexandra Montano, Gregory Purnhagen, and Peter Stewart. The release fills a major gap in the recorded account of Glass' work. The album should be of interest to any fans of minimalism, and the depth and subtlety of "Like This" are powerful enough to make the composer's most skeptical critics reevaluate their prejudices.

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