On Monday night the Winspear Opera House was packed for what was billed as "An Evening of Chamber Music" with Philip Glass and his collaborator, violinist Tim Fain. The concert, presented by TITAS, began with alternating solo appearances by Glass, seated stoically in front of a big, black Steinway, and Fain, wielding his bow with casual flair. The two also played duets, which were by far the most musically satisfying offerings of the night.
I've seen Philip Glass twice now live and sat through one of his operas and many more of his orchestral works. I like his music, but my two previous experiences seeing him in person were somewhat underwhelming. Last night, I had to rush to the Winspear from work to make the 8 o'clock curtain. I wanted to hear this legend of contemporary classical music, but part of me also just wanted to go home and eat dinner.
And then Glass came on stage and introduced his first solo piece, "Mad Rush." I've only ever seen him perform at an electronic keyboard before, and it was amazing how much more convincing his music is on a real piano. Glass has often been criticized for having less-than-stellar keyboard skills, but he wasn't playing Chopin or Rachmaninoff, he was playing Glass, and his technique works for his music. The moment he started playing, I forgot about dinner. It's almost surreal to hear this iconic music coming straight from its creator's hands; he's so nonchalant about it.
At the piano, Glass sits in almost total stillness from the wrists up, different from so many virtuosos who flail and fling their arms from chord to chord. This doesn't mean he is stiff. You can see the loose relaxation in his arms and shoulders. And you can hear it in the way he is able to draw out inner voices from his fingers, weaving textured soundscapes within the chords. He has a sound. And it's his sound. And it works for him.
Both "Mad Rush" and "Metamorphosis" (he played numbers four, three and two) are so quintessentially Glassian it's hard to describe them in any other way. They are repetitive. They build. They undulate. They whirl and bubble and morph and lull. You could get bored, but you don't because Glass is a sound-philosopher. Life is monotonous. Life is repetitive. Life never stops. It frustratingly moves ahead. The trick is finding the inner voices, slowly building and revealing a beautiful texture.
Fain showcased the more intellectual side of this composer with energetic performances of Glass' "Chaconne from Partita for Solo Violin in Seven Movements." This is Glass channeling Bach and it was appealing. He manages to weave in his own distinct sound, and he seems to have fun with the counterpoint. Fain's performance was impressive for sure, but his sound lacked warmth, and he struggled with intonation on several occasions. That being said, he sold the piece. The audience was rapt. He and Glass both know how to draw an audience into their sound.
Both piano and violin were amplified with microphones last night but didn't need to be. The vibe in the room was casual and intimate, as it should be for any chamber music experience, and I feel like hearing these two sans microphones would've enhanced that sense of shared experience.
There were several highlights: During a performance of "Wichita Vortex Sutra," the composer sat at the piano and played along to a recording of Allen Ginsberg reading his poem by the same name. Ginsberg's voice is so musical, the result was more song than poem, and Glass rode the fluctuations of the poet's voice like an expert accompanist. Another highlight was when Glass was again in the background, providing the harmonic underpinning for Fain's lyrical solos in "Music from The Screens" and "Pendulum."
Glass is famous for his film scores, but maybe he's written more soundtracks than he knows. I got the sense on Monday night that when people say they "get lost in Glass' music," they're really using his music as an accompaniment to the "movies" in their minds. We don't mind it repeating because we need something in the background, something filling out the silence and giving sound to our reflections. I know that I, for one, needed that more than I needed dinner on Monday, and I'm sure I wasn't alone.