Philip Glass: An Evening of Chamber Music
Anyone who thinks classical music is dying should have attended the chamber music concert on Monday, Feb 24 at the AT&T Performance Arts Center. What’s amazing is not just that it was a sold-out event featuring two soloists, but also for the diverse demographics. There were still many silver-haired patrons, but more from Millennials and Xers who are more of a rarity in regular symphony concerts. All were in for one name -- Philip Glass.
Not since the era of Igor Stravinsky has any other classical music composer enjoyed such an unequivocal popularity. At the age of 78, Glass still invents musical phenomena. The Monday night concert was no exception.
On stage, Glass walked gently with a slight hunched back. His unattended curly hair blended well with a steel-gray shirt and a pair of black pants. Soft-speaking and using self-depreciating humor, he looked at ease as in a family gathering; yet his voice, like his music, had a soothing hypnotic timbre that quieted an anxious young crowd, for 80 minutes without a stop.
"Mad Rush" showcased Glass’ minimalism style. Removed from the post-war modernist angst or technicality supremacy, his piano solo piece brought the pleasure of rhythmic harmony through a circuitous development of simple gestural elements. Gone are thematic premises or narratives canon of classical traditions; instead, the open-ended music portended limitless in time and space.
A two-note pulse from the left hand teeth-bound with a triplet phrase of the right hand, which unfolded into a sinuous melody. Occasionally the music ascended like torrents, only to end quietly. Although that melody was repeated insistently, it underwent constant changes in both rhythmic and dynamics.
Winspear Opera House is not an ideal venue for a chamber music concert, particularly when a soloist does not possess a superlative power to conquer the hall. Glass’ performance lacked the volume required to penetrate all five floors. While velocity and vibrato were admirable, his intonation sounded rather wooden.
If Glass’ pianism was not enough for his own music, Tim Fain made up for the rest of the evening.
A young star empowered with supreme virtuosity, he injected energy and candor to the rest of the program. Most impressive was his formidable bow controls, leading to an effortless but majestic sound. The warm glow from his Stradivarius reminded me of the legendary David Oistrakh.
Glass’ affinity for classical canon is evident in his writing of a solo violin piece based on an ancient Baroque form. "Chaconne from Partita for Solo Violin in Seven Movements" was written for Fain.
In the program, Glass chose only two movements, as he explained that completing the whole piece would be too long. Instead of progressing a bass-line through variations within one movement, like the Chaconne in Bach’s "Partita for Violin No. 2," Glass broke down the composition so that he could pursue a minimalistic style within each melodic invention and then re-introduce a baseline theme much later.
Fain’s attention to double stops and restrained vibratos ensured an insightful recital, with a propensity toward structural integrity.
The duo collaborated in "Music from the Screens," a homage to Jean Genet’s greatest stage work. The composition was written by Glass and Foday Musa Suso, a musician and West African griot from the Gambia. The selected pieces featured two French (or "Euro" in Glass’ words) themed outer movements. In between, a movement titled "Orchard" explored an Algerian Arab-ness from the French colonial period.
It was in this night-mood movement, Glass reduced the piano part to a few succinct notes in lower registry. His left hand moved slowly, to caress glowing sonorities. For a moment, he brought back the mysterious warmth of an analog era that has been long gone.
The highlight of the program was Glass’ solo piano accompanying Allen Ginsberg’s recital of his poem "Wichita Vortex Sutra." Before he played, Glass asked for more lighting so that the audience could read the poem during the performance. As for why Wichita, Glass said that was the belly button of America.
It was an eerie feeling to hear Ginsberg’s voice through a tape recording more than 20 years-old. (Ginsberg recorded this recital in 1990.) The majority of the audience was not born when the Vietnam War broke out. Yet his anti-war poem was deeper than the war itself. In the recital, Ginsberg did not leave much room for breathing or piano intervention. Instead, his reading created a momentum, like a wave of abundant absurdity in words. He may have sounded defensive, rebuttal or satirical here and there, but eventually mellowed near the end:
In chilly earthy mist houseless brown farmland plains rolling heavenward in every direction.
Glass poured in with neither pianissimo nor fortissimo; instead like a jazz musician, he paid attention to stanzas and made sure the flow of his music was more or less ambient.
It would be impossible to name another classical music titan who is willing to let his music recede to be merely ambience. But that is exactly why Glass has vaulted to a level of pop star popularity. Through decades he performed many crossover collaborations with pop, jazz and rock. In particular, his film scores have not only won him critics’ nods, but also influenced a generation who would have no chance to be exposed to minimal music.
Oddly, as a descendant of European elitism (Glass studied with Nadia Boulanger) and a decade-long New Yorker, Glass finds the visual companionship to his music in the openness of American west. Like a West Texas highway -- a continuous pattern alternating barren canyons with bush-dotted plains, Glass’ music, through a myriad repetition, reconciles our emotional sensibility with nuanced sonorities, drifting in an endless sonic space.
Dallasites were pleased.
Philip Glass: An Evening of Chamber Music played on Feb. 24 at the Winspear Opera House, 2403 Flora St, Dallas, TX 75201. For information or tickets, call 214-880-0202 or visit http://www.attpac.org