Philip Glass began composing for organ early in his career, and in a way, he never really stopped: the opening fanfare of Philip Glass's new CD, The Passion of Ramakrishna for choir, soloists and symphony orchestra, alternates between high and low brass instruments as if they were the left and right hands of a keyboardist.
While most 20th century symphonic writing has followed the example of Ravel and Mahler, treating the orchestra like a huge set of chamber ensembles and recombining them to invent exotic new timbres, Glass's orchestration bears a closer resemblance to the tradition of Bruckner or Franck, treating the sections of the orchestra like the stops on an organ — or patches on a synth — coloring the voices of his music by overlaying or subtracting preset sonorities as required.
One obvious difference between Glass and those other organists-turned-symphonists is that his chief experience with the instrument came not at the bench of a pipe organ in a European church but at ARPs, Farfisas and Hammonds in the lofts of Downtown Manhattan. He is not a religious composer.
But sacred subjects — setting the Bhagavad Gita in Satyagraha, scoring the life of the Dalai Lama in his soundtrack for Kundun — have resulted in some of his most moving scores. Add to that list The Passion of Ramakrishna, an oratorio telling the story of a Bengali mystic who continued to preach about the unimportance of physical suffering from his deathbed, even after his throat cancer made speech an excruciating agony.
The tight zoom of Glass's libretto from the cosmic teachings of Ramakrishna to his very specific, very human anguish, lends the work much of its power. In Glass's setting, the part of Ramakrishna is sung not by a soloist but by the entire chorus (here, the Pacific Chorale) — echoing the words of his wife, Sarada Devi, "No one is a stranger. Make the whole world your own." Carl St. Clair and his Pacific Symphony, a pair of under-praised Orange County institutions, give the work the energy it needs — rhythmically precise but never mechanical, and always emotionally engaged.