Orion, Athens

Athens, early June: it never rains. So what, asks Kevin Jackson, is that stuff teeming down on the premiere of Philip Glass's new work? And what does the great man make of it himself?
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Only a hardened cynic (and I don't mean Diogenes) would deny that this amphitheatre is one heck of a venue for live music. The Odeion of Herodes Atticus was built around 160-170AD by a wealthy Athenian businessman, as a tribute to his dead wife Regilia, and although it's not quite the transcendental wonder of its near neighbour, the Parthenon, it's certainly a splendid old pile.

Only a hardened cynic (and I don't mean Diogenes) would deny that this amphitheatre is one heck of a venue for live music. The Odeion of Herodes Atticus was built around 160-170AD by a wealthy Athenian businessman, as a tribute to his dead wife Regilia, and although it's not quite the transcendental wonder of its near neighbour, the Parthenon, it's certainly a splendid old pile.

Unlike many amphitheatres, it takes the form of a perfect semi-circle; 5,000-odd spectators can cram into its banked rows of stalls, and, behind the open performance space, a rugged limestone façade rises more than 100 feet towards the Greek sky. Pigeons flap in and out of its assorted nooks. Many centuries ago, this was an indoor theatre, with a great cedar-beamed ceiling, but that all crumbled and fell, and no one greatly regrets it. After all, so they tell you, it never rains during an Athenian summer.

So they tell you. On the other hand, it seems unlikely that the wet stuff that's teeming out of the sky this afternoon can all be pigeon urine. A gang of roadies is frantically swarming across the open stage, covering all the amps and the mikes and other expensive musical gizmos in black plastic. Had this been an outdoor rock concert in Britain, the organisers would surely have built a rain-proof canopy over the stage. But this is Athens, in early June, and it never rains in Athens in June, you see. "Global warming," mutters Philip Glass darkly. One of the smartly dressed young Athenian stewardesses is so tickled by this meteorological freak that she breaks into a spontaneous song-and-dance routine, imitating Gene Kelly with more energy than accuracy: "I'm seeng-neen' inn dze rayunn..." she yodels, leaping around the arena and giggling.

Most others are looking apprehensive. This doesn't bode well for tonight's show. Still, at least it means I have a few minutes to chat to the composer at the heart of it all. Philip Glass, king of minimalism, has brought his ensemble for one of the major events of the 2004 Cultural Olympics. He's been commissioned to write a large-scale new piece, Orion, and to give it a world premiere before taking it to other venues, including London's Barbican.

Backstage, in his dressing room, Glass seems free from pre-performance nerves, and talks quickly if quietly about the project in hand. Dressed in white T-shirt and chinos, he's slim, remarkably fit-looking and even more remarkably youthful. At 67, he could easily pass for a man in his forties, and the only real difference between the way he looks today and the way he looked back in the early Eighties, when he first became internationally famous, is that nowadays he often wears professorial spectacles.

We start off with the matter at hand. Orion, which he's been working on for about three years, might well be subtitled "Around the World in Six Featured Soloists and a Guest Band". Glass explains that he invited representatives of assorted musical traditions from Africa, Australia, Brazil, Canada, China, Greece and India to collaborate with him in a seven-movement piece which would showcase each national style of performance within an overall structure provided by Glass and his ensemble: "We're like the House Band".

The benign, multi-cultural ideology of this composition, and its suitability for an Olympic occasion, hardly need spelling out; but for Glass, the ethnic pluralism of his latest work has a strongly personal dimension, too. Anyone inclined to accuse Glass of jumping on the World Music bandwagon with Orion should be reminded that he was one of the Western composers who helped put wheels on that wagon, all the way back in 1964 - "two years before the Beatles!"

It happened like this. "As a student I knew nothing about non-Western music. I'd been a student in Paris, studying with Nadia Boulanger, and then out of the blue I was hired to work on this movie, Chappaqua - a friend of mind was a photographer working on the set, and they needed a musician who could work with Ravi Shankar transcribing his music for Western musicians. Now, I had no idea who Ravi Shankar was - very few people did then... So I worked with him, and after that we just kept in touch, and became friends." Shankar collaborated with Glass on the Indian segment of Orion, but at the age of almost 85 is just a little too weary to go on the road with a band, "so instead he sent me a wonderful sitar player, who's studied with him for 20 years.

"Meeting Ravi in '64 was like having a door opened - a door which led me out of this room which is Western Music - admittedly a very large room, full of interesting things, including jazz and popular music, but it was time for a change. I'd already grown out of the Schoenberg-type of thing by the time I was about 19, in the 1950s, and was working much more tonally, in ways based on the American modernists, people like Charles Ives at the more dissonant end, and even Aaron Copland. But I had no idea there was such a thing as World Music, none of us did. We had, basically, a colonial view of music - everything outside of our home territories was considered primitive. We had no idea about, say, Indian classical music ... and when I went to India with Ravi and saw that culture for what it was, it was overwhelming.

"I would say that it was virtually a traumatic experience - but in a good way! I felt at that time, as many others did, that the language of modern music needed to be refashioned. It had become too much a creature of [the second Viennese School]. Not that it wasn't beautiful music, it was astonishingly beautiful music, but I felt that to continue in that tradition was as if I were to get up in the morning and put on my great-grandfather's clothes and pretend that they were comfortable. Well, they weren't... I was searching, and once I'd met Ravi the effect was immediate, I immediately began exploring the idea of repetitive rhythmic structure in a different way. The very first piece I wrote in that mode was music for the production of a play by Samuel Beckett, Comédie..."

The signature Glass style was up and running, and the road to Einstein on the Beach, Satyagraha, Akhnaten and all the rest was now open, if not entirely straight. Glass kept doing menial day-jobs until he was into his early forties and yes, he reassures me, the much-repeated taxi-driving story is perfectly true. (Quick version: rich lady climbs into the back of his cab, sees the name on his ID tag, and says: "Young man, you won't probably know this, but you have the same name as a very famous composer...") And then we're interrupted by a stage-hand. The rain has stopped; time for the sound-check. I make myself inconspicuous for the next two hours.

The performance is meant to begin at nine sharp, but it takes a full quarter of an hour for the crowd to find their seats. It's a mature crowd, on the whole, and affluently if informally dressed (though there's a surly young dude a couple of rows down from me sporting a "Kill All Hippies" T-shirt). Finally, the lights dim, and the Philip Glass Ensemble - now gleamingly smart-casual in cream suits and white shirts - take the stage. Enter the first soloist, a tall, lumbering walrus of a bloke dressed in a loose yellow shirt and orange trousers, with a shaved head and an heroic moustache. This is Mark Atkins, who is of mixed descent: part Aborigine, part Irish, all Aussie. He carries a didgeridoo... and if that name summons up images of dear old Rolf Harris and novelty songs, forget it.

The noise which erupts from the thing as he breathes into it is an ominous chthonic grumble, like the premonition of an earthquake, or an echo of the Big Bang. The native people of Australia are said to possess the world's oldest continuous culture (some reckless souls have put the figure at 60,000 years, though the orthodox view reckons about half that figure). Maybe this was the kind of awe-inspiring noise our ancestors first nodded and tapped along to around their lonely night fires. Or maybe not. Either way, it kick-starts the Athenian audience into rapt attention, and holds them as the ensemble kicks in with some immediately identifiable Glassisms.

After the thunderously macho yang of Mark Atkins comes a welcome dose of yin, in the petite and elegant person of Wu Man, a virtuoso of the lute-like Chinese instrument called a pipa. Wu Man and Atkins perform a curiously harmonious duet, and then she settles in for her solo session. Even the most cloth-eared listener would recognise the tones which flow from her instrument as piercingly evocative of a generic "China", but where the pastiche chinoiserie beloved of Hollywood is either corny or discordant, her sound is elegiac and very fine indeed. It's fascinating to watch her left hand skittering about the frets as if it were a creature with a will of its own; and then to see her left hand smacking the Beijing equivalent of a Pete Townsend power-chord. For a featherweight, she packs a real wallop.

Next up: a fiddler from Cape Breton, Canada, name of Ashley MacIsaac. He's kitted himself up to look, comme on dit, well 'ard, in dusky kilt, sporran and bovver boots, and the odds are he hasn't shaved in a couple of days. Since I lack the gene that makes Celtic music listenable to, I must confess to finding this part of the show fairly hard to take, especially when - the horror! the horror! - MacIsaac compounds the felony by coming to stage front and dancing a wee jig. (Sorry, but in my view jigging should only be allowed in private. Among consenting adults. If then.) But the crowd laps it up and starts to clap along, so what do I know?

Things start to look cheerful again when a griot of the Mandingo people, Foday Musa Suso, wanders on stage, resplendent in bright blue robes and toting his highly decorated kora. After another little cross-cultural duet with the fiddler, Foday sits down and starts to coax fluent, liquid notes from his strings and, as if in response, it rains down like fury.

Mass exodus from the stage; mass raising of brollies among the audience. During the pause, I eavesdrop on the elderly, polyglot lady behind me, who's absolutely sold on the music - "this is magnificent," she says to her friends in four languages - and absolutely buys into the humanist ethos of the event to boot.

After a quarter of an hour, the rain eases to mild drizzle. Foday and the Ensemble return to the stage and just about struggle their way through to the end of this African movement. Then the heavens open in earnest, and the stage is abandoned again. Half an hour passes, and there is not much to do apart from go home or hunker down and try to squeeze beneath a friendly umbrella. At last, an announcement in Greek brings a huge cheer. The concert, it appears, will go on with the aid of a couple of dozen plucky umbrella-holders. So when the musicians return, the stage suddenly blossoms with open umbrellas of all shapes and shades. The lady behind me observes that it looks so pretty they might have planned it in advance, and she's right.

Orion resumes with a group from Brazil, Uakti, whose multi-instrumental feats on everything from xylophone to what looks like the spare parts for a lavatory bowl would be all the more beguiling if their lead wind-player didn't feel constrained to go prancing round the stage like an over-acting Papageno from The Magic Flute. (Again, the crowd loves this capering, so, again, what do I know?)

Uakti are followed by the young-ish sitar player Gaurav Mazumdar, doing full justice to the Ravi Shankar composition; and then finally it's the turn of a local heroine, the glamorous vocalist Eleftheria Arvanitaki, whose albums routinely go platinum in Greece. She's swathed in a skin-tight orange gown that glows in the stage lights, and her richly expressive voice stirs many older members of the audience to tears, and to ragged attempts to sing along.

Her song, unless the people I ask about it are having me on, is a traditional folk melody, "Tzivaeri", and it turns on the repeated phrase: sigana ke tapina, which they translate for me as "slowly, not proudly". If the United Nations ever decides that the Earth needs a planetary anthem, the Glass arrangement of "Tzivaeri" would serve well. As she brings the song home to its final chorus, one by one, the featured soloists return to stage, each one adding a new colour to the musical spectrum. A final swell of voice and ensemble, and Mark Atkins book-ends Orion by letting fly with a didgeridoo blast every bit as spine-shuddering as the first. We're done.

A moment's hush, and then the crowd goes ape. Standing ovation, cheers, whoops; multiple bows by the performers. Part of the enthusiasm is probably because of a mixture of gratitude to the musicians for being real troupers, and a touch of audience self-congratulation for having butched out the rains - Dunkirk spirit, Athens-style. But a larger part is obviously sheer enthusiasm for Glass and his League of Musical Nations.

Will it play as powerfully in London? Even more powerfully, perhaps. The Barbican may not be a minor wonder of the ancient world, but it does have a marvellously water-resistant roof.

'Orion': Barbican, London EC2 (0845 120 7536/ www.barbican.org.uk/contemporary), tomorrow