Review: Philip Glass takes on Leonard Cohen. Big mistake.
Joshua Kosman, Chronicle Music Critic
Thursday, October 11, 2007
The whole Philip Glass celebration had been going along so nicely,
First there was a lovely, intimate recital in Herbst Theatre,
with the composer himself participating. Then there was the
premiere of the inconsistent but often potent "Appomattox,"
still running at the San Francisco Opera.
But on Tuesday night, the third shoe dropped with a fetid,
soul-deadening thud onto the stage of Stanford's Memorial
Auditorium, and there was nothing to do but avert one's eyes
and ears in disbelieving horror.
"Book of Longing," which opened the new season at Stanford Lively
Arts, is an evening-long song cycle that weds Glass' music with
the words of songwriter Leonard Cohen. It comprises nearly two
dozen numbers, performed without intermission by a quartet of
singers and an eight-member instrumental ensemble, and there is
scarcely a moment in the piece that doesn't inspire shame.
Long, tedious, witless and numbingly repetitive, "Book of Longing"
is a sort of perversely virtuosic display of awfulness. The only
thing keeping it from being utterly negligible is its unshakable
air of grandiose self-importance.
That air, as well as much of the awfulness, stems chiefly from
Cohen's lyrics, a stream of undercooked apercus and barely veiled
self-regard. The texts encompass love songs, political commentary,
Skid Row posturing and more, all of it channeled through a filter
The pretentiousness may contribute to his reputation as an artist,
but beneath his long-standing pose of a sensitive hipster, Cohen
retains the sensibility of a frat boy on the lookout for a sexual
score. The text of one interminable song, "The Night of Santiago,"
could be rendered more succinctly as "I met this awesome chick
one time and we, like, totally did it."
Yet even that might have been tolerable if Cohen's use of language
were not so impoverished, his writing such a morass of monosyllables
and clunky end-rhymes. One representative couplet can stand in
for the rest: "The Paris sky is blue and bright/ I want to fly
with all my might."
I guess there are some who could hear that and, like Homer
Simpson, murmur appreciatively, "Mmmm ... poetry!" The rest of
us can only blanch.
Cohen's doggerel in turn brings out the worst in Glass, a composer
who should never be given a pretext for writing foursquare rhythms
in neat four-bar phrases. The unexpected has never played a very
large part in his aesthetic, but I don't think he's ever written
anything as predictable as "Book of Longing"; you can practically
tell from the opening strains of one song how the next one will
Tuesday's performance was the one the piece deserved. The singers,
Dominique Plaisant, Tara Hugo, Will Erat and Daniel Keeling,
seemed to be staging a competition to see who had the patchiest
top notes, the breathiest phrasing and the weakest pitch (verdict:
Conductor Michael Riesman, a stalwart veteran of Glass' work,
couldn't sustain a strong beat. The production, staged by director
Susan Marshall, involved the projection of a series of Cohen's
line drawings: endless self-portraits, endless naked ladies, and
But was there nothing to recommend, you may ask, nothing at all
to savor? Well, Glass did insert a series of instrumental solos,
and freed from Cohen's influence, the performance leapt briefly
to life (one soloist, bassist Eleonore Oppenheim, delivered her
assignment with particular eloquence).
And in one song, "How Much I Love You," Glass writes a beautiful
instrumental figure for woodwinds and strings in parallel thirds
that serves as a welcome reminder of how ravishing his music can
sometimes sound. If it were sung expressively and in tune, that
one could make a serviceable outtake.
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