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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Get it While the Getting is Good

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One of the shadow devices intricately carved from water buffalo leather by artist Eko Nugroho for his production “In the Name of Semelah” performed by Wayang Bocor theatre company, at Carolina Performing Arts 1/20/17. Photo courtesy CPA.

OK, y’all. The time soon is coming when we will be severely restricted as to what artists we may see and hear from countries with Islamic cultures. Take advantage while you can.

A week ago, Carolina Performing Arts presented an amazing multimedia shadow play by an Indonesian contemporary artist, Eko Nugroho, in which peaceful Islam comes to Indonesia, bringing wisdom and kindness to a place where the existing Hindu kingdom has become corrupt and “hunger and poverty [had] spread throughout the kingdom and society was in chaos.” (Sound familiar?)

The story was told was incredible artistry, and afterwards, the audience (more than 1000) had the opportunity to go up onto the stage, behind the scrim and play with the shadow puppets! and talk with the artist–who was looking a little stunned, because usually a large show for him is a couple hundred people. It was totally wonderful.

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Indonesian artist Eko Nugroho backstage with his brilliant shadow puppets, after the performance. Photo courtesy CPA.

The show, and the one tonight, are part of CPA’s Sacred/Secular: A Sufi Journey series. You think such a thing will happen next year, or the year after that, or the next one? Even artists must have visas.

So: tonight, Friday January 27, 8 pm in the newly renovated Hill Hall auditorium, now named for former Chancellor Moeser–a mask dancer from Java, Nani. She’s a 7th generation dancer of the Topeng Losari, mask dances. Whether you go for the dancing, the mysticism, the masks or the gorgeous Javanese cloth, get up and go. We will not see the likes of this again any time soon.

As of 11 a.m., general admission tickets were still available. Entrance to Hill Hall from the main UNC quad.

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Nani, in Topeng Losari. Photo courtesy CPA.

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

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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.

 

 

 

 

David Cecelski

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