NEW YORK: Philip Glass, often considered the finest living US composer, has credited India with helping form his musical vision.
When trying in turn to understand what made modern India, Glass looks to 19th-century mystic Ramakrishna Paramahamsa.
“The Passion of Ramakrishna,” an oratorio by Glass on the final days of the revered guru, found a new audience with its New York debut on Saturday night at Carnegie Hall, closing a season of concerts to mark the composer’s 80th birthday.
The Pacific Symphony, which premiered “The Passion of Ramakrishna” in 2006 at its home in southern California’s Orange County, brought the work to New York in the Carnegie Hall debut for the 39-year-old orchestra that has emphasised original choral works.
Sung by the 100-strong Pacific Chorale, “The Passion of Ramakrishna” is, musically at least, a disarmingly straightforward work for Glass, with triumphant brass and a tender epilogue that hark back to an earlier era of Western composers.
Ramakrishna, from the eastern state of West Bengal, was consumed by spiritual visions from a young age and, as his followers grew, became a critical force in shaping modern Hinduism.
He notably declared that “all religions are true” – a powerful statement for equality in the diverse subcontinent – and worshiped a “divine mother” as creator of the world.
Glass, in brief comments to introduce “The Passion of Ramakrishna” at Carnegie Hall, credited Ramakrishna with instilling a sense of Indian identity at a time when British colonialism had spread feelings of cultural inferiority.
“It is hard to imagine the emergence of India on the world stage without the spark that was provided by Ramakrishna’s brilliance,” Glass wrote in notes to a recorded version of “The Passion of Ramakrishna.”
The years after Ramakrishna’s death saw a flowering in Indian culture led by figures influenced by him.
His disciple Swami Vivekananda would popularize yoga among Westerners, Rabindranath Tagore would pursue writings that won the Nobel Prize, and Mahatma Gandhi – the focus of a better-known Glass work, the opera “Satyagraha” – would develop the intellectual underpinnings of the non-violent movement that achieved independence.
“The Passion of Ramakrishna,” which explores the guru’s acceptance of physical pain as he dies of throat cancer, brings out singers who portray key people in his life including his wife Sarada Devi.
But Ramakrishna is represented by more than 100 voices – the full chorale, both men and women.
Carl St. Clair, the music director and conductor of the Pacific Symphony, said he and Glass had wanted to reflect Ramakrishna’s state of enlightenment as he lay dying.
“We almost at the same time came to the idea that the voice of Ramakrishna should actually be the chorus, because at that stage in one’s relationship with God, gender evaporates,” St. Clair said.
Glass had a formative experience in 1960s Paris when he met sitar legend Ravi Shankar, who lifted the instrument to the world stage. Glass set about transcribing Shankar into notation that could be followed by Western musicians.
The Pacific Symphony opened at Carnegie Hall with “Meetings Along the Edge,” from the 1990 joint album by Glass and Shankar, in which the American’s trademark arpeggios play with ragas adapted to strings.
The late maestro’s daughter Anoushka Shankar joined the concert to perform her father’s Sitar Concerto No. 3, a call-and-response between the sitar and Western ensemble which Ravi Shankar had taught her only through singing the ragas.
As for “The Passion of Ramakrishna,” St. Clair said he was initially struck by the influence not of Shankar, but of the late Austrian Romantic Anton Bruckner.
When he presented his theory to Glass, St. Clair said the composer was taken aback — he had indeed composed most of the oratorio while in Bruckner’s home city of Linz.