Chambered Glass

Lisa Hirsch on October 2, 2007
Philip Glass turned 70 this year, and the Bay Area is celebrating in style, with performances of two high-profile new works, Appomattox at San Francisco Opera and The Book of Longing, a collaboration with Leonard Cohen, at Stanford Lively Arts. Those works will travel, but last Friday, San Francisco Performances gave us a very special concert indeed, with Glass himself on piano, cellist Wendy Sutter, and percussionist Mick Rossi playing pieces drawn from various periods of the composer's long and prolific career. At the heart of the concert was Songs and Poems for Cello, a suite of seven pieces being performed for only the second time. In his spoken program notes for the piece, Glass said that "you can probably only tell that there are six, but if you're counting, you're probably not listening." He's right about that: I stopped counting somewhere around the second or third piece, carried away in the headlong rush and intensity of the piece, and captivated by Sutter's fearless playing and rich, mahogany tone. Songs and Poems is deeply Romantic in spirit, and at the same time deeply Baroque, unavoidably bringing to mind the Bach suites for solo cello. The familiar ostinatos and repetitions of Glass' style are here extended to tremendous extremes, and turned to produce something like counterpoint, suggesting multiple voices at work throughout. The slashing, angular opening, like a wild czardas, gives way to a warm legato melody with cantorial overtones, the nobility of Bach touched with Jewish lamentation. Another movement starts with a simple, and somehow familiar, tune that returns multiple times, the piece developing into a cross between a rondo and a set of variations. Songs and Poems is a major work, and a major addition to the cello repertory. I hope to someday hear it on a program with one or more of the Bach suites. Glass opened the program with a solo piano performance of selections from Metamorphosis, written in 1988. He played the pieces more or less continuously, on the grounds, he said, that they have a similar emotional feel. That is certainly the case, and the compositional means are similar, as well, though the first movement's Chopinesque arpeggiations and decorations contrasted with the blocks of tone in the third. The composer is a good, though not great, pianist, and fumbled occasionally; it was impossible to tell whether one point of respite from the continuous texture was a striking compositional feature or a memory lapse.

Evocative Mood Play

Tissues represented Glass' large and masterly output of film music. The printed program says that the four pieces are from Godfrey Reggio's 2002 film Naqoyqatsi, but Glass commented that Reggio, who was in the audience, might not have heard them before. In any event, the four quietly evoke different moods — the first eerie and spare; the second a flickering, darting, and hypnotic unison duet between the cello and celesta; the last two contemplative and evoking the night. Glass introduced incidental music from The Orchard by saying that he hadn't seen the play in so long that he couldn't remember why the piece was called The Orchard, and also that it was intended to evoke sounds of nature. Oddly, it sounded wholly urban to me, and I kept expecting it to break out in Gershwin. The program closed with "Closing," from Glassworks, tinged with nostalgia, and somehow giving me visions of vast landscapes and endless horizons in unknown lands. Much critical skepticism toward Glass has centered on the structure of repetition in his music and the plainness of the musical motifs he employs. I believe that the interesting question is how he achieves so much with these apparently uncomplicated means, since many, including me, find his music intensely emotional. By the close of Friday's program, I was convinced that he has found a way to tap into some primal stream of longing and nostalgia that runs through the human heart. Given the enthusiastic reception, I'm not the only person affected that way by his music.

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