December 9, 2011

Philip Glass: the Tim Tebow of opera?

Those who follow sports know all about Tim Tebow; he's the flavor of the month in the National Football League.  Those who follow performing arts know all about Philip Glass; he's been the flavor of the past forty-odd years, which beats the longevity of the flavor of Wrigley's Spearmint by a good bit.

But how many Americans know who both of them are?  I've got to think it's a relatively small number.  Boy, can I pick a demographic or what?!  <sigh>  But, undeterred, I shall plunge on doggedly with what I think is a valid-though-initially-far-fetched comparison.

Exactly how does the composer of Einstein On the Beach, Satyagraha, Akhnaten and Orphée in any way resemble the rookie quarterback of the Denver Broncos?  Let's see if you can make sense of my argument.

Tebow played his college ball at a big-name Mecca of football, the University of Florida.  Philip Glass studied at the Juilliard School, a musical Mecca.

Once in the pros, Tebow sat on the bench in obscurity, deemed by the NFL Establishment as unfit to lead a pro team due to percieved poor skill-sets. Merrill Hoge, a former player with the Pittsburgh Steelers and Chicago Bears who is now an NFL analyst for ESPN, has characterized Tebow thusly: 

"It's embarrassing to think the Broncos could win with Tebow!  I just watched Tebow throw five out routes to a wide open wide receiver; he was 1-for-5!"  Of those five, observed Hoge, two  went into the dirt and two sailed into the stands.  "You must possess a skill set to play", he ranted scornfully on Twitter; "Tebow struggles with accuracy!"

Let's compare the tone of these remarks (which were not uncommon in the football world), with the reception given Glass's early works by some prominent critics.   Typical was Donal Henahan's assessment, writing in the New York Times: "[Glass's operas] stand to music as the sentence 'See Spot run' stands to literature.  (Glass, by the way, also experienced the equivalent of sitting on the bench in obscurity; in his early years he drove a cab and worked as a plumber to pay his bills.)

Tebow and Glass have recorded similar reactions when the subject of their respective critics has been raised.  When reporters asked Tebow to respond to team owner (and former star quarterback) John Elway's lack of confidence in him, the young man replied,  "I honestly don't pay much attention, I don't try to focus on anything that doesn't affect me personally and how I go out there every single day. I'm just going to continue to work hard and focus on what I can control."

Along those lines, Glass summed up his views on criticism like this:  "Don't tell me whether the review was good or bad, tell me how much space the paper gave to the event.  Only a few people read reviews through, you know, and only a few of those people care what the reviewer thought."

Another point of commonality is found in the cult-like status that quickly formed around both athlete and musician by die-hard supporters in the early stages of their careers.  In the late 60's and early 70's, performances by the Philip Glass Ensemble were first attended by miniscule audiences who paid nothing or gave small donations.  But this following grew, and with it Glass's notoriety as a fresh and provocative musical voice, eventually leading to performances of his first opera Einstein on the Beach in Hamburg, Paris, Belgrade, Venice, Rotterdam, and even non-Met performances at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York. 

As for Tebow, it is generally accepted that when Denver's starting quarterback Kyle Orton faltered in the first several games of the 2011 season, it was the overwhelming demand of the fan base which led the coaching staff to insert Tebow, actually the third-string player at the position, into the starting line-up. 

Fans of both are passionate and vocal.  Whenever the gods of sports-talk radio dare to criticize Tebow for his limitations, they are greeted with a deluge of emails, phone calls and text messages springing to his defense, whereas Glass's ensemble plays to sold-out halls for large fees, while his operas are the current darling of the Met.

It's interesting as well to note the almost reluctant embrace given both men by analysts and critics.  Writers tend to get a bit mystical when attempting to describe Tebow's success.  In his recent op-ed piece for the NY Times, Frank Bruni flounders about, searching for vocabulary words to nail the essence of Tebow-osity.  He comes up with "tendencies", "inclinations", and "optimism" which "radiates from Tebow" and "fires up" his teammates.  It's all about intangible qualities that can't really be quantified or defined.  As for Glass, now that he's graduated from the status of enfant terrible to that of Grand Master, the critical Establishment attempts to capture similar intangibles in music which, on paper, would appear lacking in inspiration.  Robert Palmer wrote:

"One listens to the music and, somehow, without quite knowing it, one crosses the line from being puzzled or irritated to being absolutely bewitched.  The experience is inexplicable..."

Yup.  Just as inexplicable as a pro quarterback who, week after week, rallies his team from deficits in the waning minutes to save yet another game.

NOTE:  before some of you musical sophisticates get all indignant with me (and I hate it when people get indignant with me), let me freely acknowledge a distinction between Glass and Tebow which seriously weakens the elaborate analogy I just constructed.

Tebow does have serious technical deficiencies.  His throwing motion is flawed and his accuracy is highly erratic.  The intangibles of optimism permit him to succeed in spite of his technical flaws.

Glass is a highly skilled, rigorously trained, complete musician with no technical flaws whatsoever.  The simplicity of many of his works is a choice, not evidence of lack of ability.  Tebow doesn't choose to throw his passes into the dirt; Glass does choose to repeat scale patterns for pages on end. 

But they do remind me of one another... just a tad...

Photo of Tim Tebow by Jeffrey Beall.  Photo of Philip Glass by WNYC New York Public Radio.

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