Saturday, February 3, 2018

Musicians Play and Discuss Philip Glass

2007 photograph of Philip Glass (contributed to Wikimedia Commons by WNYC, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license)

Last night in Herbst Theatre, San Francisco Performances presented the first of its two programs planned for this month to honor Philip Glass in the wake of the year-long celebration of that composer’s 80th birthday (which concluded at the end of last month). The title of last night’s program was On Playing Glass. In involved a generous amount of music cutting across much of Glass’ career, supplemented with a (fortunately) modest share of shop talk between two of the performers. The full complement of performers consisted of the Kronos Quartet (violinists David Harrington and John Sherba, violist Hank Dutt, and cellist Sunny Yang) and pianist Timo Andres, with Harrington and Andres providing the shop talk.

The first half of the program was devoted to selected movements from Glass’ string quartets. The quartets sampled were the second (written for a staging of Samuel Beckett’s “Company” in 1983), fourth (commissioned in memory of the artist Brian Buczak and completed in 1989), third (taken from music written for Paul Schrader’s film Mishima in 1985), and fifth (1991). Both the second and fifth quartets were composed for Kronos.

For those unfamiliar with Glass, this programming provided an excellent introduction to that technique that the composer himself liked to call “music with repetitive structures.” All of the individual movements were less than ten minutes in duration, meaning that each provided an accessible introduction to how Glass could begin with repetition as a surface structure and then develop it through gradual change as a deep structure. To borrow a phrase that cognitive scientists tend to like, each individual movement disclosed Glass’ approach to technique through a “mind-sized chunk.”

In addition the progression of quartet movements was given an “intermission” in the middle with a performance of Glass “Modern Love Waltz.” Glass wrote this for solo piano, and it was his contribution to the C. F. Peters publication Waltzes by 25 Contemporary Composers. The repetitive structures are clearly apparent, but the whole piece is short and sweet. I first heard it played by Stephen Drury at a competition finalists’ recital at Carnegie Hall. (Drury followed it immediately by playing Charles Ives second “Concord” sonata entirely from memory. I never forgave the judges for not giving him First Prize!)

Kronos played their own arrangement of this piece, spicing it with a generous share of wit that Glass may not have originally intended. Yang played the ostinato bass (sounding very much like a fandango) while Harrington and Sherba passed the melodic fragments back and forth. Dutt set aside his viola and stood by a toy piano, which he used to play the brief chord sequences that Glass inserted between his arpeggio passages. If the audience had not yet gotten the message that this would not be a deadly serious evening, this Kronos arrangement made the point loud and clear (but never raucously).

Andres’ contribution to the program consisted primarily of three études from the second of Glass’ two volumes of solo piano études, each containing ten of them. In the overall sequencing, Andres played the thirteenth, sixteenth, and twentieth. Glass claimed that he wrote these for the benefit of his maintaining his own keyboard technique.

Here, again, mind-sized chunks were the order of the day. One could apprehend the skills being cultivated by each individual étude while, at the same time, appreciating that prevailing rhetoric of repetitive structures. The études were preceded by a very recent solo piano composition, “Evening Song No. 2,” which was premiered at the Brooklyn Academy of Music on April 1, 2017. (The first “Evening Song” was a section in Glass’ Satyagraha opera.) By the time Andres took the stage, even the “newcomers” had received adequate exposure to Glass’ approach to making music; and the poetry of Andres’ approach to the piano music was deeply moving.

Finally, all musicians assembled to perform selections of the music that Glass wrote to accompany Tod Browning’s Dracula film. This music was originally written for Kronos. However, Andres joined the quartet in an arrangement prepared by Michael Riesman. This provided the entire evening with a compelling sense of a “grand finale.”

The shop talk interludes sounded as if they were spontaneous, rather than based on some intended plan. As a result the content tended to waver between awkward moments of praise and a generous number of insights regarding both preparation and execution of Glass’ music. Most interesting were moments in which Harrington and Andres exchanged thoughts on how to bring expressiveness to music in the absence of any clues in the printed score. There was certainly a freshness to the spontaneity of the discussion, but there were intimations of being a bit too casual that tended to impede getting at those points that were most worth making.

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