By Janelle Gelfand
The Cincinnati Enquirer
Philip Glass' Symphony No. 5 is, quite simply, a revelation. The regional premiere of Symphony No. 5, subtitled "Requiem, Bardo and Nirmanakaya," Saturday night in Corbett Auditorium at the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music was a stunning achievement, and one of the most remarkable classical music events in Cincinnati this year.
An hour before the concert, the 740-seat house was packed. Glass, 66, guru of avant-garde music and one of the most influential composers of our time, was speaking about his music. A founding father of "minimalist" music, he attracted a diverse audience, who made it a happening.
Forces of more than 200 were onstage, including the CCM Concert Orchestra, Chamber Choir and Chorale, Cincinnati Children's Choir and five soloists, led by conductor Earl Rivers. The 100-minute work, performed without a break, consists of 12 movements encompassing themes of creation, birth, death, suffering and paradise.
"I was thinking about the Hindu idea that there are cycles of existence that come and go, like waves breaking on a beach, and we are living one tiny part of that," Glass said in his preconcert discussion with CCM dean Douglas Lowry.
Glass, with the Very Rev. James Parks Morton and Kusumita P. Pedersen, compiled texts from many global traditions - as diverse as the Zuni Creation Story, the Quran and the Old and New Testaments. Translated into English, the commonalities were fascinating; the result was poetic and quite moving. Listeners followed along closely, not wanting to miss a word, and stood cheering at its conclusion.
The scope of this choral symphony ranks among those by Beethoven or Mahler. It unfolded in oratorio fashion - with seamless alterations between soloists and chorus.
Glass' minimalist roots wove a unifying thread. The pulsating music had Asian tinges and wonderful imagery - the swelling sea music in "The Creation of Sentient Beings," for instance. Its trademarks included repeating motives and major harmonies, with fleeting dissonances.
The performers' grasp of the massive project was impressive. Only briefly - in a shaky attack or a strained high passage - did one remember that these were students.
The soloists provided many highlights, such as soprano Kelli Domke's serene phrasing in "The Creation of Human Beings," and bass-baritone Dong-Geun Kim's emotional "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" from Psalms. Christopher O'Connor projected a ringing, focused tenor; solos by baritone Marc Callahan and mezzo Lauren Pastorek were equally compelling.
On the podium, Rivers led the electrifying choral buildups and changes of tempo and meter with a sure hand. The combined choruses took their task seriously, enunciating the texts clearly, and the Concert Orchestra handled the work's rhythmic complexities like pros.
It was so hypnotic and emotionally charged, one barely noticed 100 minutes had elapsed at its soaring conclusion.
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