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The Juniper Tree, Philip Glass: In The Upper Room

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Philip Glass' music was such unbridled fun in the 1980s with its bright, bouncing, beach-ball harmonies and chord sequences that could have bopped in from a Carole King song. Back then it seemed this New York composer became the public face of contemporary classical overnight.

It was Glass' minimalist mantras that steadied us while we watched the amphetamine scramble of Godfrey Reggio's Koyaanisqatsi and the composer's 1982 Glassworks even made it on to coffee tables alongside Dire Straits' Love Over Gold and Split Enz's Time and Tide.

Two new releases from Orange Mountain Music, a label dedicated to the music of the composer, revisit those halcyon days.

In the Upper Room was a 1986 dance score written for Twyla Tharp. Only sections made it to CD at the time, all tinted, or should I say tainted, with ever-present, egregious synthesiser.

Orange Mountain now gives us all nine movements of the ballet, including the longish Dance IV, a veritable mesmerama of a piece, as well as the Bach-influenced Dance VII.

The new recording also removes the electronic smudging, and the acoustic instruments warm up proceedings considerably, taking away the overly robotic impression this music gave us 23 years ago.

What a shame, though, none of the instrumentalists receives a credit on the cover.

It has taken almost a quarter of a century for the opera The Juniper Tree to receive a proper release. Recorded live during its premiere season in 1985, this adaptation of a classic Grimm fairytale finds Glass working alongside Robert Moran, with the various scenes being divided up between the two composers.

Glass works with weightier subjects these days, mostly alongside British playwright Christopher Hampton, and so The Juniper Tree has a welcome lightness and sense of frolic from the moment the birds fly in with their "Pa pa pa pa pa" chorus.

Glass' music, in general, follows familiar trails and very skilfully caters for performers of somewhat mixed ability. Moran, contributing six of the 10 tracks, draws from a more innovative palette but, in doing so, challenges his musicians here and there.

Yet Moran provides the single most memorable moment, a final vocal trio, worthy of a minimalist Rosenkavalier. Here, the kindly Father (beautifully sung by Sanford Sylvan, John Adams' original Klinghoffer) joins his children to celebrate the felling and frying of the wicked stepmother.

William Dart

- NZ Herald

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