Philip Glass, SF

Written by:
John Sullivan
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Philip Glass at the piano
Photo by Philip Meier

Same, Same, Different

Philip Glass, piano
Solo recital of Six Etudes—Nos. 1, 2, 3, 6, 9, 10 (1994-1999), “Mad Rush” (1980), “Metamorphoses”—Nos. 2,3,4 (1989), “Dreaming Awake” (2006), and “Wichita Vortex Sutra” (1990)
Novellus Theater, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, San Francisco
April 30, 2011

Philip Glass didn’t come to the Bay Area just to play piano at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts—although it was nice that he did. At 74, Glass remains insanely productive; he was also here to make an appearance at Lucinda Childs Dance Company’s performance of their 1979 collaboration, “Dance”—a collaboration they shared with visual artist Sol LeWitt. Both Childs and Glass were also in California to launch another acclaimed collaboration, this time with avant-garde stage director and playwright Robert Wilson, whose epic opera, “Einstein on the Beach” (1976) will have its West Coast premiere at Cal Performances in 2012. What a better time, with this schedule, to just sit at the piano and knock out a few tumbling arpeggios and shifting rhythmic phrases, as only Glass can do?

Six Etudes are part of an evening length of sixteen studies total. Each approach the piano a bit differently, resulting in diverse yet familiar compositions. Those played April 30 range from the romantic melancholy of No. 2, to an urban traffic pulse and intensity of No. 3, to the meeting of two opposing characters (low octave to higher octave) that melt together in No. 9, and concluding with the frenetic rhapsody that progresses into a jazzy style in No. 10.

“Mad Rush” was originally composed for organ, to which Lucinda Childs choreographed a solo just after it premiered in 1980. “Mad Rush” (view a sample here) has a complexity of rhythm and an orchestral arch to it, with drops of notes the higher octaves.

“Metamorphoses” is another set of compositions drawn, in part, from a staging of Kafka’s “Metamorphosis” by Gerald Thomas. The melancholy Metamorphosis No. 2 with its heavy held base note that repeats throughout the variations 3 and 4 elicits a sense of nostalgia and defines the sonic flow typical of Glass compositions. What keeps this hugely characteristic arrangement of his, and much of the entire program, from coming off tired and trite goes beyond the genuinely unique freshness of most of his compositions, and that Glass is the one playing them.

Dreaming Awake,” which has also been set to choreography by Molissa Fenley, superimposes rhythmical structures and acrobatic changes in temper.

The final composition, before an encore of “Nights on the Balcony,” was “Wichita Vortex Sutra,” named after Allen Ginsberg’s antiwar poem from the 1960s. This poem was used in his first collaboration with Glass in 1990 in the chamber opera “Hydrogen Jukebox” (named from a verse in Ginsberg’s epic poem, “Howl.”)

Of this creative venture, Glass says:In 1988…I happened to run into Allen Ginsberg at St. Mark’s bookshop in New York and asked him if he would perform with me. We were in the poetry section, and he grabbed a book from the shelf and pointed out ‘Wichita Vortex Sutra.’ The poem, written in 1966 and reflecting the anti-war mood of the times, seemed highly appropriate for the occasion. I composed a piano piece to accompany Allen’s reading, which took place at the Schubert Theater on Broadway.”

When Ginsberg died in 1997, Glass put the piece aside, only recently reviving it. For this recital, Ginsberg’s prerecorded reading of the poem was played over Glass’ composition. Although the sentiment for this piece was present, it was performed as if the two of them were competing to see who could play and speak the loudest. I’m not sure why this delivery was presented this way unless to express the antiwar tension of that—and current—time or if the sound wasn’t mixed well. “Wichita Vortex Sutra” is a lovely piano piece on its own, and Ginsberg’s passionate poem—delivered with his trademark raspy voice—stands equally by itself, and yet, as presented, they seemed to be having their own tug of war.

So, how did Glass do, playing his own compositions that are mostly indistinguishable one from the other? Clearly, he still genuinely enjoys what he does, which includes telling restrained history-rich war stories about each piece. And this in itself is worth paying attention to, because while the music may repeat itself over and over, who’s to say how much longer this groundbreaking composer will be playing recitals? He is a living legend and, as such, at a fairly intimate concert such as Novellus Theater, it is equally challenging to distinguish the art and the artist—both with their repetitive structures and stylistic nuances.

David Moreno

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