1st Glass

Wow. Wow to the nth degree. The Bruckner Orchester Linz, under Dennis Russell Davies, performed three Philip Glass works last night, Feb.1, in Memorial Auditorium as the kick-off for Carolina Performing Arts‘ 10-day  Glass at 80 festival. Davies and Glass are old friends, and Davies is considered to be one of the foremost interpreters of Glass’s music. Indeed, Davies initiated the commission for the first work the orchestra played, Days and and Nights in Rocinha (1997), which Glass had dedicated to the conductor.

Awash as we are in a fetid swamp of ugliness, I’m craving beauty like a smoker craves a cigarette, and beauty I got–full-blown beauty that for its glorious 20 minutes, obliterated all the pain. Somehow (out of Glass’s prodigious output) I had never heard Days and Nights in Rocinha. Um, not sure how I had been living. When music gets me on its wavelength, I get tapestries of color–more like the Northern Lights, evanescent–but sometimes, as with Glass, I also get a tactile sensory experience, and occasionally even scents. In Rocinha I saw every shade of green, rough browns, sapphire blues, blue-black, chrome golds and phosphorescent sparkles, all tossing like tall trees and lapping like calm waves. I could hear the palm fronds clacking, muted traffic, the laughter of dancers, tree frogs and bright birds. And always, the heartbeat of the ocean, steady under the the swooping joy. When the room came back, I felt as if I’d been caressed with flowers, rubbed down with sugar and wrapped in thick velvet–cares sloughed off, bitter barriers dissolved, skin all alive to the wonders of earthly life. What a gift.

I rushed right out to the merchandise table at intermission, but they did not have that recording. It is available, however, on the CD Orchestral Music (vol. II) with other pieces, and on iTunes (find out more on Glass’s supremely well-organized website).

The rest of the concert was nearly as soul-stirring. One reason I like Glass’s music is that the beats, no matter how complex, feel to me like the heartbeat of–well, everything alive, and of the fluid rock beneath the earthy crust. During the Violin Concerto No. 1 (1987) I was struck by a memory of lying on the ground in the front yard when I was about five, ear to the earth and eye on the tiny blue flowers pushing up through a patch of moss. In the concerto, that vital force burgeons into tall forests of sound, thick with fleeting textures. It was all I could do to stay in my seat throughout the torrent. Soloist Robert McDuffie’s violin darted through the forest, and danced with the pixies, and snuck around the trees to surprise from behind. It was fantastic. At the end, after several long breaths, Davies put down his baton and clasped McDuffie in a beaming hug, while the whole orchestra glowed and smiled.

The concerto has a normal concerto structure, fast-slow-fast, but the new Symphony No. 11 (which has premiered the night before, Glass’s actual 80th birthday, in Carnegie Hall), also in three movements, felt not just bigger, but much much freer, running off to explore all sorts of tangents. But always, there’s that underlying beat, so reassuring, and all the forays into the bright world come home to it. The percussion in this piece is particularly great. I’d go back tonight if they were playing it again, and stand in back so I could dance instead of driving my neighbor crazy swaying and bobbing in my seat.

No. 11 has in spades the other thing I find so powerful in Glass’s work: the sense that the music has completed itself emotionally as well as mathematically, that it is not a collection of fragments waiting for the listener to give it meaning. I can’t begin to say how he does it, but from the beginning you feel the inevitability of the music circling back, like you feel the inevitability of an arc closing into a circle, with all the colorful patterns coalescing into white light, white heat, as if being put through a reverse prism. But Glass, when he brings it all around, leaves one infinitesimal point open for the energy to arc across–he keeps it alive and sizzling. Complete, but not moribund.

Some of the remaining of the festival is sold out (!), but there are still a very few tickets available for DANCE, and some for the Heroes concert this Friday, for Dracula with the Kronos Quartet, and amazingly, for Glass together with Laurie Anderson. Don’t miss out.

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