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.

Clear as Glass (Philip, 80 proof)

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Philip Glass. The protean composer will be at UNC-Chapel Hill for several days during the Glass at 80 festival organized by CPA. Photo: Raymond Meier.

 

Before I tell you about the two wonderful performances I saw this past weekend, I want to make sure you know about the 10-day series of performances honoring composer Philip Glass on his 80th birthday. Beginning Wednesday, February 1, and extending to February 10, this remarkably varied series and its accompanying events and exhibitions could only be brought to you by a major university. While this festival will not be as extensive as the stupendous year focused on The Rite of Spring, it has the very great merit of engaging with the work of a magnificent composer who is still with us–its an aural retrospective for a living artist, and a chance to hear not only his music, but what he himself has to say about it.

Very few arts aficionados will be unaware of Glass’s work in a range of forms: Movies, check. Operas, check. String quartets, check. Orchestral music, check. Dance, check. Weird experimental stuff, check. Carolina Performing Arts will be offering some of each during Glass at 80. I was unable to choose among them, so I expect to be Glassy-eyed by Feb.11.

If I did have to choose just one, it would be the re-creation of Dance, made in 1979 by choreographer Lucinda Childs, visual artist Sol LeWitt, and Philip Glass. Each artist worked in a modular manner, making complexity out of simple, repeating marks, motions and structures. Before live motion-capture video was a thing, LeWitt made a black and white film of Childs’ dancers to project at huge scale behind the live dancers in motion among his painted lines on the stage floor–motion synchronous with Glass’ music (rather than asynchronous in the manner of Cunningham and Cage). The Lucinda Childs Dance Company will perform this historically important work in Memorial Hall Feb. 7. This work may slay any ideas you may have about minimalist art lacking humanism.

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A moment from Dance, by Lucinda Childs, Sol LeWitt and Philip Glass. Photo: Sally Cohn.

 

But then again, it might be Words and Music in Two Parts, the first major collaboration between Philip Glass and Laurie Anderson. Laurie Anderson! and Philip Glass! with the Philip Glass Ensemble! Only the artists know what will happen in this–it will be brand new on Feb. 10. Prepare to be tranced and entranced by two of the most brilliant experimental artists of our time.

But there is also an evening featuring the complete set of piano etudes by Glass–performed by 10 superb pianists, including Glass himself. This is a form that gets the listener right to the heart of the composer. UNC’s Clara Yang will also perform. This one will take place in the newly renovated and acoustically pleasing Moeser Auditorium in Hill Hall.

Since I didn’t choose, I’ll be plunging into this aural indulgence with an all-Glass program by the Bruckner Orchester Linz on Feb. 1. The program will include a tone poem, Glass’ Violin Concerto No. 1, and his Symphony No. 11–obviously, he has survived the 9th symphony curse. Two days later comes the Heroes Tribute: the UNC Symphony will play Glass’ Symphony No. 4, “Heroes,” inspired by the music of Brian Eno and David Bowie; then a roster of Merge Records artists will play their versions of pieces from David Bowie’s Heroes album. This is how art rolls on into the future, and pulls the past with it.

Another example of that rolling creative circle will be the performance of Glass’s Dracula by the Kronos Quartet as the great silent film with Bela Lugosi is screened behind them in Memorial Hall on Feb. 9. Glass was commissioned to write the score when the Tod Browning film (1931) was restored in 1998. It will be particularly interesting to see and hear this after seeing Dance two days previously.

And if that’s not enough, check out the various talks, including one by Glass and another by Glass and Laurie Anderson, and the related exhibition at the Ackland Art Museum, which features, among other works, two portraits of Glass by his friend Chuck Close. All the details at glassat80.org.

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Dracula, with the Kronos Quartet. Photo: Didier Dorval.

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