Kepler, Brooklyn Academy

Kepler, Brooklyn Academy


Part of the 2009 Next Wave Festival
Nov 18, 20 & 21, 2009 at 7:30pm
An Opera by Philip Glass
Libretto by Martina Winkel
Bruckner Orchestra Linz
Conducted by Dennis Russell Davies


Kepler_Phillip Glass

Philip Glass always does the unexpected. Or, as he said to me when we were talking
on the phone about his subsequently Oscar-nominated score for Errol Morris' 2003 THE
FOG OF WAR " I'm a bad person to interview because I never stay on the subject. "
Well, yes and no. Yes, because Glass' focus on the work in front of him's
unflinching, and no, because his instincts always lead him to surprising solutions.
His latest 2 act 155 minute intermissionless opera KEPLER ( 2009 ) which American
conductor Dennis Russell Davies and his Bruckner Orchester Linz, premiered at the
Linz Opera September 20 2009 as part of that city's celebrations as this year's
Cultural Capital of Europe -- Kepler lived in Linz, Mozart's Symphony# 36 was
dedicated to it ,Bruckner was choir director there -- and 2 of the Nazis' death
camps -- Malthausen and Gusen whose specialty was getting rid of the intelligentsia
-- were scant kilometres from its city limits. But then darkness is never far from

And darkness as distinct, or in contrast / opposition to -- light --is the motor
that drives Glass' KEPLER, but not in a Manichean way. Glass is far too subtle to
put his cards on one table. Instead, being a practical practicing Buddhist, he seems
to have chosen the unglamorous " Middle Way " which means seeing " things as they
are " and in Kepler's case this is -- war, strife, and anyone who dares question
him. The mathematician-teacher-astronomer-astrologer and all round provocateur (
itals ), who lived from 1571 to 1630, seems to have been at the epicenter of
cultural ferment, and of course The Thirty Years War ( 1618-1648 ), which began more
or less as a conflict between Catholics and Protestants , and ended up devastating
much of Europe, with a death toll as high as 11.5 million people, a little less than
half of the top figure for the 1914-1918 War. Glass dramatizes these stresses -- for
clearly these were stresses -- in a direct and indirect way. And his in German and
Latin libretto, assembled by Austrian artist Martina Winkel, from Kepler's
theoretical writings on the laws of planetary motion and other major discoveries,
his enemies list, passages from the Lutheran Bible, and poems by Andreas Gryphius (
1616-1664 ), works both as reportage and evocation. The oratorio-like piece for the
79 member BOL, partailly staged here with effective lighting and Karel van Laere's
costumes for its 7 soloists -- bass-baritone Martin Achrainer as Kepler is the only
specified character and --Soprano 1 -- Sadie Rosales who substituted for the
indisposed Cassandra McConnell -- Soprano 2 ( Cheryl Lichter ), Mezzo ( Katherina
Hebelkova ), Tenor ( Pedro Velazquez Diaz ), Baritone ( Seho Chang ), and Bass (
Florian Spiess ) -- who functioned as aspects of Kepler's often beleagured psyche.
Plus the 40 member Linz chorus, moved incrementally through the work. Still I'd have
to agree with my "plus 1 " friend that the first 2o or so minutes, after a
wonderfully transparent orchestra only prologue with lovely chromatic figures for
the strings, was pretty hard going. But then things began to progress by leaps and
bounds. Kepler outlined his theories and his conflicts -- he feels that heaven's not
a place inhabited by " divine beings " but a "clockwork " -- which suits Glass'
formal processes to a tee. The chorus, operating as both character and commentator--
gave KEPLER heft and vivid and enormously varied contasts. Glass has always written
superbly for massed voices -- the choruses in SATYAGRAHA ( 1979 ) are contemporary
watersheds -- and those here were both affecting and powerful, especially the "
Vanitas! Vanitas! " , which the full vocal ensemble sang on the lip of the stage
facing the audience, with the onstage orchestra seated behind. And wouldn't you know
it but my cell rang -- being a neophyte in all things cell -- the only sound in the
house as the audience was completely spell-bound -- and how could they not be? -- by
this arresting passage.

Those who think Glass hasn't developed from his classic 1965-1974 period when he
invented an entirely new -- from the ground up -- language for himself have
obviously not been listening. And the range, variety, and depth of the music here
suprised the ear , delighted the mind, and touched the heart. The composer used
Latin rhythms in several sections-- the Caribbean form's called the montuno ( itals
)-- which provided tension and drama in equal measure. His command of the orchestra
bore the sure mark of a master. The sheer variety of the textures -- from lean -- to
fat, but never clotted, even in a stunning stretch depicting the devastation both
physical and psychic of The Thirty Years War, which, as the Synopsis has it "
becomes a threat to all mankind" couldn't be more horrific, and poignant. The
orchestration was apt, colorful -- Glass kept the 6 percussionists and sole pianist
on their toes -- and expressive throughout. Languid meditative stretches --
particularly those describing Kepler's love for the starry heavens -- alternated
with ones where Glass used opposing contrapuntal tactics -- say similar vs. contrary
motion -- complex stacked up rhythms and polyharmonies. There were tritones in
several places -- it's not all just anchored in minor third -- but full of fourths
and fifths, as in the opening section of Act 2, where fourths in the vocal line abut
fifths in the bass.

One could argue till kingdom come as to whether KEPLER is a "real opera " -- TOSCA
it ain't -- or an opera-oratorio like Stravinsky's OEDIPUS REX ( 1926-27 ) -- as
some people probably still are . But who cares when you have a work of such
thrilling depth and power? It's well-known that Glass has been attracted to
scientists, as in his EINSTEIN ON THE BEACH ( 1975 -76 ), and GALILEO GALILEI ( 2
), and his score for Errol Morris' doc about Stephen Hawking, A BRIEF HSTORY OF
TIME ( 1992 ), where Hawking ended up in the Prologue of Glass' THE VOYAGE ( 1991 ).
But I think that only skims the surface because KEPLER's in large part an epic
mediitation on death, as in the eponymously titled 9th movement of Glass' 12
movement 5th Symphony (1999). Or, as the Latin chant John Barry used in his THE LION
IN WINTER ( 1968 ) puts it " Media vita in morte sumus " -- " in the midst of life
we are in death ". And you can't get more serious, and essential than that.

Davies and his orchestra, chorus, and soloists gave full measure. And the soloists
-- from the superbly gifted Martin Achrainer's Kepler -- never stinted on clarity,
nuance, or dramatic projection. It was thrilling to see the justly awarded Sadie
Rosales stepping in on short notice -- score before her -- and delivering the goods
bigtime. And Glass looked close to tears as he took his curtain call, though it was
hard to see him through the roaring standing ovation which erupted as soon as the
double basses played their completely exposed last notes.

Michael McDonagh
Mr. Simpson has a BA in Journalism from the University of Southern California and worked as an advertising writer in Los Angeles before moving to New York to pursue a different passion: dance. He danced professionally in New York and Boston before founding a community-based modern dance company, Small City Dance Project, in Newburyport, MA. His fiction has appeared in literary journals and anthologies. He was a teaching fellow at Smith College, where he received his MFA in choreography. While living in the Bay Area for 15 years, he wrote about dance for the San Francisco Chronicle and other periodicals. In 2005, he was a NEA Fellow at the Dance Critics Institute, American Dance Festival. For, he reviews dance, theatre and film. He moved to Santa Fe in October, 2008. He writes for "Pasatiempo," the Arts magazine of the "Santa Fe New Mexican."