The amount of past music is necessarily finite, and many fans of the euphonious orchestral works of, say, Dvorak and Grieg may well wish there was more where that came from. Well, maybe there is. There’s, for example, the work of Johan Halvorsen to consider, a Norwegian composer who died in 1935. Until recently he’d been almost totally forgotten, if indeed he was ever widely known outside Norway. But now the ever-enterprising Chandos label has completed an issue of three CDs featuring his orchestral work. Most importantly, they contain Halvorsen’s three symphonies, one on each disc.
These symphonies resemble the early Dvorak, but with none of Dvorak’s distinctive flavor. The second is said to be the most successful of the three, but I found it as boring as the other two. It’s the kind of music you might hear mid-afternoon on a classical radio station, wonder vaguely who it was by, but not take the trouble to find out. The symphonies date from 1923, 1928 and 1929, and when you consider what Mahler and Richard Strauss had already achieved two decades earlier, well, words fail me. Some of the shorter works featured here may please some listeners, but Halvorsen as a symphonist is dullness personified.
Now for something far more interesting. Dec. 1 saw the closing performance of the New York Met’s latest revival of Philip Glass’s extraordinary opera Satyagraha. The production was enthusiastically reviewed, and Glass himself was present to take an onstage bow at the end, before reportedly going off to join the Occupy Wall Street demonstrations.
It’s an unusual opera for many reasons. The text is entirely in Sanskrit, it’s about Gandhi’s experiences as a young man in South Africa fighting for the rights of the Indian minority, yet it’s in three acts named after Tolstoy, the Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore, and Martin Luther King Jr.
The problem is to find an appropriate DVD of the work. Currently there’s only one available, a recording of a production in Stuttgart in 1983. It has received both howls of derision and ecstatic, five-star praise from online critics. I’m going to join the latter group — by and large, I adored it.
For much of the time it’s the opera given an expressionistic dressing. White-clad crowds mill around, brandish white balloons, and indulge in repetitive actions reflecting the endless repetitions of Glass’ music. Act One closes with the Gandhi figure advancing on the audience along a raised-up ramp as if in a state of transcendental giggling.
The citizens are essentially portrayed as if in an ecstatic trance, and it’s arguable that this is precisely what the music itself is attempting to induce. I found that this explained the wide discrepancy in the critical reactions — those who didn’t like it focused on the mediocre sound and visual quality, but the few who really fell for it did so with abandon. From the outside it was merely an excess of pointless posturing and unconvincing
noise, but to those open to such things it was more like a
Act Two (“Tagore”) is almost as exciting as Act One and focuses on Gandhi’s establishment of a radical newspaper; it reaches its zenith in the snowing down of endless shreds of torn-up paper. Act Three is totally different — a group of black Americans progressing at an infinitesimally slow pace across the stage, in fact barely moving at all. It’s a test of anyone’s powers of endurance, and to me the major shortcoming of the production.