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.

The China Philharmonic, with Clara Yang, at Carolina Performing Arts


Clara Yang performing the world premiere of Chen Yi’s Four Spirits, a Carolina Performing Arts commission, in Beijing with the China Philharmonic Orchestra. Photo courtesy Clara Yang.


Clara Yang wore the same spectacular dress for the US premiere of Chen Yi’s Four Spirits last night in UNC’s Memorial Hall. A dress like that signals utter confidence; Yang’s playing equalled the dress in bold certitude. Carolina Performing Arts had commissioned the concerto for piano and orchestra for Yang to play on this occasion with the China Philharmonic Orchestra, and the composer Chen Yi was in the audience.

The world has changed so much in my lifetime. I never thought I’d live to see a composer whose childhood had been disrupted by Mao’s Cultural Revolution honored by a branch of the Chinese state that glorifies the very music that had been banned during those destructive years. When Yang took her bows, she called Chen Yi to the stage as well, and the top of my head nearly blew off. Chen Yi, now 63 and a professor in Kansas City, wore a pants suit, tailored to her, hardly a baggy worker’s uniform–but dark blue, with a Chairman Mao collar.

Each of the four movements in Four Spirits is an aural portrait of a mythical/spiritual animal from ancient Chinese culture, and each is quite different in character. Vivid, colorful and distinct, each aroused a different feeling in the listener. The piano alone takes the first bars–the entry of the Blue Dragon of the East–but from then on, the piano and orchestra bind tightly together. I thought the music was thrilling, rather in the way that a painted portrait can be thrilling when it feels true and insightful to the viewer. It might perhaps have been even better had actions occurred–what do these creatures do? But just to see them in the mind’s eye through sound was pretty mystical. I particularly liked the dual nature of the plodding Black Xuanwu of the North with its shimmering snake scales and percussive clickings, and the section in the White Tiger of the West that evokes the ghostly cat, its stripes like shadows among the flickering shadows of a bamboo grove, although the composer seemed to have a special affinity for the Red Phoenix in the South, which rose again and again in all its glory in the concerto’s final movement.

It is not often one gets to hear a well-known piece of music in a way that makes it seem as if one had never heard it before. After intermission, the orchestra played Dmitri Shostakovich’s Symphony no. 5 in D Minor, Op. 47 and conductor Long Yu’s interpretation was silken and subtle. It is such a strange piece, starting off sort of boilerplate–but ominous sounds weave in–the martial beat, rigid, coercive structures. In the second movement, an individual voice rings out in a gorgeous line from the first violin, but it’s quickly supplanted by pretty dances that ring with false gaiety. The third movement is infused with fearful melancholy, and the martial forces sound louder and closer. The final movement seems to indicate a kind of take-over, a crushing even, of the gentle and gay by powerful forces whose militaristic strength and gaudy glory are triumphant. Shostakovich wrote it in 1937, attempting to make a comeback rather than an exit through the gulag. It was a coded picture of life in Stalin’s USSR, but its enormous popularity allowed Shostakovich to be (somewhat) rehabilitated, and although he had another terrible bout with the authorities later, he lived until 1975.

It is a disturbing piece to me, and all the more so in this interpretation that somehow left more air, more space for one to feel and think, than is usually heard. There was nothing brash here, and what is beautiful in the music was very beautiful indeed. The massed strings, in perfect synchrony, even to the angles of the bows, were the very definition of lush. The percussion was outstanding; the first violin’s truncated solo was unforgettable; the flutes and harp were particularly lovely. It was indeed a gorgeous night at the symphony.





Limpid Beethoven at CPA Unequal to Election-eve Anxiety

Isabelle Faust- Alexander MelnikovPhoto: Marco Borggreve

Isabelle Faust and Alexander Melnikov appeared at Carolina Performing Arts. Photo: Marco Borggreve.

I had thought, when I calendared a concert the night before Election Day, that surely Beethoven would surge over the roiling anxiety, drowning it for an hour or two. But the three-sonata concert by Isabelle Faust, violin, and Alexander Melnikov, piano, at Carolina Performing Arts lacked the over-aweing force that might have quieted the panicking inner voice.

The world as I know it will change by the end of this day. If it goes one way, well and good; if it goes the other way, as I kept thinking during the program, concerts like this may become few and far between, their suavity and cultivation being the opposite of the crass, coarse and crude. It’s cold comfort, but I remind myself–Beethoven survived even the Nazis (although only because he was already dead).

A chamber music concert by highly accomplished musicians playing works by one of Europe’s greatest artists ever pretty much defines the upper reaches of a rarefied type of Eurocentric high culture. For each two concert musicians of this caliber, thousands have been winnowed. That is how is goes with art: not everyone is among the best. There is a hierarchy. These are not characteristics to appeal to the deplorable mob. Artistic greatness can attract a vast, varied audience, but that rarely happens with classical music. This is “high culture,” which requires an “elite” audience, and on November 7, UNC’s Memorial Hall was far from full. Although, as far as I can tell, all that is required to be among the elite is the ability and willingness to sit very still and focus your hearing–to use your ears like you use your eyes in a museum.

Sometimes a painting is too subtle to attract your notice–too quiet in its purity, and that is how the music seemed last night: too quiet for my unquiet soul. Faust plays a Stradivarius with a silken ethereal tone, and her long bowed lines draw out like warm caramel–but there was a singular lack of emotion and emphasis in her and Melnikov’s interpretation. At times, one could barely hear the violin over the piano, although when the two instruments were in conversation, both were clear. Once again, political analogies raised their sorry heads.

Faust and Melnikov were both youthful prodigies. Separately and together they have won numerous high-level prizes (including one for their recording of Beethoven sonatas) and are now in successful mid-career. While their interpretation was elegant and utterly clean, it seemed to lack sympathy for the struggling parts of the music. To my taste, later Beethoven–further from the classical, closer to the romantic–is more powerful, so the two earlier pieces they played, Sonata in A minor, op. 23, and the F Major, op. 24 “Spring,” were of less interest than the later Sonata in G Major, op 96, which came after intermission. It’s a much more emotionally compelling piece of music, and both players gave us some beautiful passages…but it was not magnificent. I got more satisfaction out of the pretty Viennese pastry of the F Major. However, the sugar rush led to the inevitable sugar crash and return of existential nausea. The dramatic element of soul-cleansing catharsis was absent from this program.

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