Philip Glass at San Francisco Jazz Festival

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Michael McDonagh
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You’re alone in your room and hear music.You’re sitting in a room with other people and hear this same music. But does this change how you hear that music? These are just some of the questions which Philip Glass’ piano music provoked when I heard it played on a concert in SF Jazz’s Philip Glass Fest this July. We could of course ask these questions about any music but Glass’ music always ups the ante because it’s always about how we perceive it in space and time, and not just about how many times it repeats or doesn’t. And it’s always somehow about isolation and connection or how we struggle to make sense of ourselves and convey this felt sense to others.

Glass began the program with “Mad Rush” (1979) which he played on the organ of New York’s Cathedral of St. John the Dive as an entrance piece for the Dalai Lama. Its F major / A minor shits provide both drama — the fast and furious figures sound like some of the protest music in Glass’ Gandhi opera “Satyagraha” (1979) — and repose. Glass isn’t a virtuoso pianist but his performance which adhered to the pedal and ritard — or pull backs in tempo — markings in his score, was subtly impassioned, and dare I say it? played from the heart in what seem to be increasingly heartless times.

Anton Batagov, who was born in Moscow in what is now the Russian Federation, gave the American premiere of “Distant Figure, Passacaglia for Piano” (2017), which Glass wrote for him. It sounded OK on SF Jazz’s American Steinway but I think he realized it more fully on the Viennese Boesendorfer he played on his www.orangemountainmusic.com CD which seems to capture its dynamics and colors — I haven’t seen the score — more accurately and poetically than he did here. Glass and Batagov are deeply serious and introverted artists and Batagov’s sense of dynamics and musical space seems to mirror Glass’ sense. Soft is soft and loud is loud but always within an evolving continuum like a field.The changes are always there and always naturally achieved. Nothing is pushed.

The same alas cannot be said for Taiwan-born and Vienna-raised Jenny Lin who has been playing Glass’ Complete Piano Etudes (1994-2012) with the composer and other pianists around the world and chose to play three here — # 6 in F minor; # 18 in G minor ; and # 20 in C major — which she substituted for # 10 in E-flat major. This was a wise choice and not just because it’s fast — metronome marking 176 — and requires a formidable technique and rhythmic exactitude to pull it off, and Glass’ recorded and live performances are knockouts. Lin’s performance of # 6 was bland, generalized, and far too loud, and she didn’t seem to understand the internal logic of its dynamic shifts from “piano” ( soft ) to “forte” (loud ). Her performance of # 18 was also too loud and I don’t think she played the four duplets — two plus two plus two — which begin at bar three and which Glass has marked to be performed as a unit of six — as written, but mechanically. And I was minded of what Elizabeth Taylor said to Richard Burton about how he should approach the part of Mark Antony in “Cleopatra” (1963 ) — “You don’t have to do anything. You’re forty feet tall.” But Lin did less by doing more when she could have done more by seeming to do “less.” Her exaggerated sense of dynamics and form continued in # 20 which is the kiss of death in a piece as internal as this. She didn’t pull it off when she performed it with the same pianists here plus Sarah Cahill at Stanford which I wrote up for www.culturevulture.net. This isn’t a virtuoso number but feeling projected as sound on the edge of feeling with the ego erased. And # 20’s exquisite last two bars which are marked “ppp” — “pianissimo” or as soft as possible — just ended here, when they should hang alone in space, and this alas was how Lin played at Stanford. Her recorded performances of Glass’ Complete Piano Etudes are fine as they go, but playing live is a horse of a different color.

Lin didn’t fare much better in her performance with Batagov of Glass’ “Four Movements for Two Pianos ” (2008). Batagov had the mostly accompanimental part while Lin had the showy one which she pushed relentlessly. This isn’t what this piece needs. You can compete but you also have to agree but that’s not what happened here though Lin and Batagov’s energetic performance still managed to bring down the house.

American Aaron Diehl is a far more interesting pianist than Lin which may stem from the fact that he, Glass and Batagov are composers who move easily between traditions which in Diehl’s case means jazz. And all three composer-performers know that music has to be written and played from the inside out. And it doesn’t hurt that Diehl is a fully engaged artist with a precise touch and an exceptionally fluid technique. His improvs on two Glass pieces — the Piano Etude # 16 in G minor and the middle slow Movement II from “String Quartet # 4 ( Buczak ) ” (1989), which Geoffrey Hendricks asked Glass to write in memory of his painter partner Brian Buczak ( 1954-1987) who died from AIDS, were both imaginative and respectful. Diehl extracted, deconstructed, combined, and reordered their component parts without imposing his own ego on them. His re-imagining of # 16 had point — the “forte” ( loud ) “piu mosso ” more movement — faster section — came off naturally like a jazz/classical vamp, His playing of his improv on Movement II joined these two supposedly divergent streams into one entirely logical flow. It was ” a musical impression of Brian Buczak as a person as well as a tribute to his life’s work ” as Glass put it in a program note. Glass, Buczak, and Hendricks were friends and I was fortunate to see Buczack’s portrait of them all together on the beach when I visited Glass in 1991 for an interview at his East Village home. The picture was a statement, if one has to use that loaded word, about our isolation and being together, and our our desire to connect however we can. And so was the music here.


C 2018 Michael McDonagh

Michael McDonagh has followed Philip Glass’ work since 1981 and has written many pieces on it for numerous publications including www.latimes.com and www.classical-music-review.org.

McDonagh is also a poet and his third handwritten fine art book of his poems with his artist friend of many years www.garybukovnik.com is ” all kinds of weather ” which is available only from their publisher www.norfolkpress.com

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