Sunday, August 21, 2011

Philip Glass Taking New Roads with New Days and Nights Festival - review

Day Two of the Days and Nights Festival brings Chamber Music to new Heights

Philip Glass has written operas, symphonies and chamber music capturing the hearts of classical music lovers since in the sixties. While his style of repetitive structures has been dubbed "minimalist" there is nothing minimal about his music. His early works immersed the listeners in waves of subtle changes like a sonic weather storm sweeping across the sky.

Last night the Days and Nights Festival presented an evening of chamber music featuring both the music of Philip Glass and Franz Schubert. You might think these two composers are an odd mix, but the combination not only featured each of the composers well, but highlighted how Glass reaches back to previous forms of music to create something new and how forward seeking Schubert was with his music.

The concert opened with Pendulum by Philip Glass - a work for violin and piano with Tim Fain on violin and Philip Glass on piano. The piece premiered in September 2010 as a piano trio, but re-written in 2011 for violin and piano. In the beginning there is the subtle shifting motives we have come to love from Philip Glass. But as the pendulum swings the violin gets more and more wildly frantic. I half expected the bow of Tim Fain to fly out into the audience at several points. Still, he was in complete control the entire time through the undulating figures and extensive double stops. The piano oscillated from being underpinning and accompaniment to sections of featured performance. Perhaps the most amazing aspect of the piece is the complete blend of the two instruments. There were moments of featured points for each instrument, but the music is so complex and thoroughly integrated the two instruments stopped being two and became one intricate, composite instrument, a single pendulum shifting through the music.

Pendulum was followed by the Fifth String Quartet by Philip Glass. The work is in five movements, but was performed as a steady stream --demanding a great deal of extended focus from the musicians. Written in 1991, this is not an early work of Philip Glass, but it does harken back to an early style. There is more of the extended repetitive structures Glass became famous for, and yet there were also points of sweeping melody, strong passages by the entire quartet alternating with soft, delicate progressions. Tim Fain and Maria Bachmann on violin, David Harding on viola and Matt Halmovitz on cello did an amazing job of shifting through the various colors of the piece, watching each other to highlight moments of unison while each was able to capture the power of their individual lines. Often times Tim, Maria and David were gallivanting through rich melodic sections while Matt pinned the music to an often manic bass line. There were passages when the entire ensemble attacked their instruments with angry passion and immediately shifted to tender passages when the quartet seemed to weep together. By the end of the music the audience is elated, exhausted, amazed and enthusiastic, sweeping enmasse to their feet for an extended standing ovation for the composer and the players. The concert could have ended on that piece, but it was only intermission.

The second half of the concert was treated to Franz Schubert's Piano Trio No. 1 in B-flat performed by Maria Bachmann, Matt Halmovitz and Jon Kilbonoff. Typically music of this period (late 19th-century) is harmonically rich and filled with sweeping melodies. Here Schubert does not disappoint. Some might think putting Romantic era music opposite Philip Glass to be a bit off-putting: typically the shifting colors are dramatically different, Glass taking slow shifts in color, whereas the Romantics tended to make sharp shifts; undulating patterns in Glass whereas Romantics tend to mutate the motives in clearly defined ways. I, however, felt the programming of the Schubert opposite the two Glass pieces was effective. Maria and Matt often alternated the romantic motives over the subtle piano of Jon, but the colors and harmonic shifts were in many ways similar to what we heard from Glass. The motives were more clearly defined in the Schubert bouncing between the trio, but there were also similarities which illuminated the roots of Philip Glass are based in a deep tradition of great music, while also highlighting the forward thinking of Schubert in grasping the possibilities for a piano trio.

The performers had their work cut out for them and they succeeded without hesitation, diving headlong into the music and capturing every nuance. A lesser performance of any of these works would have failed to realize the connection in the program. The Days and Nights Festival have brought world class musicians to bring to life world class music. They are setting an incredibly high bar for their first year. Somehow, I think the vision of the future is considerably higher still.

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