PHILIP GLASS: The Passion of Ramakrishna – Pacific Sym./ Pacific Chorale and soloists/Carl St. Clair – Orange Mt.

by | Dec 26, 2012 | Classical CD Reviews

PHILIP GLASS: The Passion of Ramakrishna – Pacific Symphony/ Pacific Chorale and soloists/ Carl St. Clair – Orange Mountain Music OMM 0080, 44:12 [Distr. by Harmonia mundi] ****:

Sri Ramakrishna (1836-1886) was a Hindu holy man and preacher whom some in British-occupied India felt was a prophet. He achieved fame and an almost cult status as a man who knew the sacred writings of his religion thoroughly and who sought to restore the practice of Hinduism throughout India at a time when religion was suffering. Ramakrishna became a revered speaker and writer himself and was seen as the figurehead of mid-nineteenth century India’s religious resurgence while Gandhi was considered the political and social reformer. His reputation spread throughout India and he had a large reverent following to the time of his death.
This Passion by Philip Glass (who—by now—does not require a background introduction) is not at all a “requiem”, of course, but gives us a view, not really a story, of Ramakrishna’s world through his words and some other Hindu writings. Structurally, the work uses a blend of large choral pieces, writing for which is one of the composer’s strong suits, as well as arias for solo voices intended to represent Ramakrishna (“The Master”), his wife, other teachers and followers and a narrator.
The writing is what we expect from Glass. The choruses are strong as are some of the long-line vocal solos. The orchestral writing is filled with swaying strings, pretty wind sectionals and some well-placed dramatics from the brass and percussion; all in the style that defines Philip Glass and which (I think) uniquely outlives what was labeled as “minimalism.” The work captures the attention immediately with a big, marcato Prologue and ends quietly, almost suddenly, with the Epilogue telling of the death of the Master.
The performance forces here are excellent. I have had the good fortune to hear the southern California-based Pacific Symphony and the Chorale under Carl St. Clair’s direction a few times and they really are one of the country’s best kept secrets (to the majority) and are on a par with at least any of the orchestras one can hear past the “big boys”. Additionally, St. Clair has an enthusiastic grasp of contemporary music and has commissioned works for the Pacific Symphony from many esteemed composers, including Glass (including the present work), William Bolcom, Michael Daugherty, Chen Yi and Tobias Picker.
Philip Glass is, arguably, America’s best known composer with his music being heard in concert halls, chamber settings, film scores and even television commercials—whether or not listeners realize this is whose music is heard. I have been a fan and follower for over forty years and remain so. The Passion of Ramakrishna is a fine work written on themes that clearly mean a lot to the composer. A separate question is whether this piece is one of Glass’s very “best” works. I think, even for big works involving his estimable choral writing, I would go to his Symphony No. 5 – Requiem, Bardo and Nirmanakaya first. However, this work will please all Glass fans and serves well as an introduction to his music for the completely unfamiliar (are there any?)
—Daniel Coombs