I was in Lincoln, Nebraska earlier this week, listening to the music of Phillip Glass. Tuesday night was the world premiere of a new piano quintet, Annunciation, and I was thrilled to be present, thrilled to be invited my my friend Liana, who was involved in the commission. Well, actually, I seem to recollect that I invited myself, and Liana graciously agreed. But the experience also found me questioning myself, refining my thoughts both on why I find one piece brilliant and another not so much, but also in terms of reminding myself that all of these thoughts are subjective and personal, and finding balance is key.
Late Monday afternoon we went to the rehearsal, and I was immediately entranced, enmeshed in this stunningly beautiful work, based on the the communion hymn of the Annunciation from the Greek Orthodox service, a hymn that is itself based on Psalm 133. At the rehearsal, the pianist, Paul Barnes, and others first sang the hymn for us, to help us to hear and understand the references, and then the piece began. Powerfully soaring opening chords drew me into the music, opening a space for the introduction of the chant as it develops into a repetitive, shared theme that is at time meditative, at times brooding, simultaneously expansive and inclusive, ending that reminded me of hearts and arms thrown open.
As I sat in that room, listening and absorbing, present with a work, a performance I felt to be brilliant, my focus was also on the previous week’s symphony performance. I was still struggling with the last blog post, and listening to this new work helped focus my attention both on what I love about music, and about my own uneasy feelings about writing when I was not thrilled with a performance. Of course one cannot be thrilled with everything, and, aside from technical matters, everything is subjective. The trick is in understanding my own biases and preferences, and in finding words that communicate something that is, in effect ephemeral and experiential. It like so much of everything else of value in life, seems to be an ongoing process of learning and expanding horizons.
I felt incredibly fortunate to be in Lincoln, to listen to the musicians and the composer review and refine the details of actually translating the notes from paper to sound, to hear adjustments and changes as they evolved, in some ways refining my own experience of the piece as the performance itself was refined. Not really being a musician myself, merely an avid listener, I nonetheless found the process fascinating and enlightening.
I felt equally fortunate to attend a dinner that evening with Phillip Glass, Paul Barnes, the Chiara Quartet, and other Artists and sponsors of the event. It was an honor to meet Phillip Glass, although I was neither charming, nor witty, with nothing creative to say, awed and tongue-tied at meeting a composer whose work I have followed since my early 20’s, a composer who inspired me to trek to New York City and take the subway to Brooklyn, where I had never been, by myself, just to hear Einstein on the Beach at BAM. Looking back on it now I see how shy and naive I was then, my older self bemused that I thought going to Brooklyn was an adventure. And yet that memory also makes me smile because it was the beginning of a newly found adventurousness in music, a first-step, one of many, toward becoming who I am today. Still, I was thrilled to shake his hand, to sit at the table with him to watch the interactions around me. To converse with musicians and artists, and just be present in a creative space.
God, that makes me sound far mor voyeuristic than I think I am.
Tuesday night was the world premier of the work at the Lied Center in Lincoln. The difference in the space, from the small room where the rehearsal was heard to the large space of the concert hall amazed me. It was almost as if I was hearing two different works, except that they weren’t different. I remembered the music and I knew intellectually I was hearing the same thing, but the emotional resonance was different. Perhaps it was just that, having heard the piece before, I was able to focus more on the complexities of the music itself. In the small hall the opening chords where strong and enveloping, drawing you immediately into its own space, and the conclusion a bright transfiguration. In the concert hall the opening bars felt more meditative and softly seductive. The patterns of the Byzantine chant more evident to this listener, and yet still welcoming and inclusive, One still felt drawn into the music, the space felt transformed, and the ending a transcendent release, a brightly ephemeral scattering of light into the space.
But the quintent was not the entirety of the concert, although the concert was mostly devoted to the music of Glass. And of course I have quibbles. The concert opened with members of Cappella Romana singing selections from the Greek Orthodox Mass, ending with the communion hymn for the Annunciation, in two versions, the piece which inspired the Piano Quintet. The singers were fabulous, and I loved the pacing and cadence of the Byzantine chant. But I was also somewhat familiar with the style because George had long been a lover of Orthodox Christian music, and although his specific love was for the Russian Orthodox, and I had not heard the Greek before, there were enough similarities that I felt comfortable, and calmed, in the listening.
The singing was followed by a short, unpublished, work by Glass, Pendulum for Violin and Piano, performed by Barnes and Hyeyung Yoon. It was a lovely work, but in retrospect I the positioning was off, and it distracted from the opening of the piano quintet. I would have opened the concert with this short Glass work, to whet the appetite of the audience for that which was to come, then gone into the chant, and followed the chant immediately with the Piano Quintet, to highlight the progression of the theme. But as I said above, this is a minor quibble.
The second half of the program began with a short choral piece from Hydrogen Jukebox called the Father Death Blues. Based on a poem by Alan Ginsberg, written after the death of his father, the song was gently mournful, and the performance was truly lovely and beautifully performed. I find Glass's choral works richly rewarding, and a surprise sometimes, to friends who know only his instrumental pieces.
The concert closed with the Piano Concerto No. 2 “After Louis and Clark”. I am sure this work was chosen because it was also commissioned by Barnes and premiered in Nebraska, but it seemed to me to be a good counterpoint to the new work, as to my ears at least, although both works at obviously by Glass, they are not at all alike. The Quintet is lushly spiritual and spaciously uplifting and enfolding, whereas the second piano concerto is full of movement in an entirely different way -- a driving, exploring movement with a spacious, outward reaching sense of movement that feels more horizontal as compared to the vertical movement of the Piano Quintet. It was a lovely performance. I admit I have a recording of the piano concerto, also played by Barnes, and it was fabulous to see and hear him perform live. He made the music dance, and seem effortless, allowed it to occupy the space. Even that part of the first movement that increasingly amazes me each time I hear it, where the pianist is playing in two different tempos simultaneously, bridging and uniting the orchestra in a rather complex polymetric rhythm, playing in one meter with the right hand, in concert with the violins, while the left hand is simultaneously playing a slower tempo with the violas and cellos, felt like a natural progression of the music, flowing part and then together again, as a natural course of events, the piano dynamically and yet calmly holding the center.
Much as I enjoyed the performance however, The orchestra, which is an excellent student orchestra, did not quite master the subtleties and nuance in the repetitive themes that I have heard in the recorded version of this piece. In such a performance it is easy to forget that Glass’s music involves a layering of repetitive themes that are not at all simple, but complexly layered. The layering is essential, as the apparent simplicity of beauty is a veil. To build multifaceted layers that appear simple is genius. The lack of subtlety in the playing lent a sense of “sameness” to the piece, a sameness that does nothing to help me convince my many friends that Glass does not write the same theme over and over. The performance was beautiful but could have been more.
As to hearing Barnes play, and meeting him, that was also one of the highlights of my trip. I have a couple of Barnes’ recordings, but had never heard him play live. The fact that the first time I heard him live was in the intimate space of the rehearsal was amazing. I’ve long admired his playing, at least on recordings, but in watching him in a small space, playing as part of a chamber group I was impressed by the warmth and inclusiveness of his playing, his movements and expressions, his interactions with the quartet. Everything seemed to be part and parcel about a conversation with the music, and expansive conversation that stemmed outward from the music and drew the musicians and the listener in. In fact he reminded me of one of my all favorite pianists, Menahem Pressler, a pianist I used to seek out in performance whenever I could. It turns out that Barnes studied under Pressler, although I'm sure many others did as well, but few musicians express that sense of the performance and the music as a living conversation with such beauty..