Philip Glass brings his piano music to a packed New World Center

By Lawrence Budmen

Philip Glass performed his music in a solo concert Thursday night at the New World Center in Miami Beach.

A predominantly young, modish South Beach crowd filled nearly every seat of the New World Center on Thursday night for a solo piano concert by composer Philip Glass, presented by the Rhythm Foundation.

While the composer’s early minimalist style tended toward volume and repetition, recent works have found Glass writing in a more elegant, meditative form. Examples of both genres were on display at the hour and forty minute concert, sans intermission.

During the 1990’s Glass wrote sixteen etudes for solo piano, in an often imaginative contemporary update of the technically daunting works in the genre by Liszt and Chopin. Glass played six of his etudes Thursday night.¬†Of the six, etudes 9 and 10 fall prey to his worst excesses with loud, uninspired thematic material recycled ad infinitum.

The others etudes proved much more compelling. The initial theme of the first etude was later adapted by the composer in his acclaimed score for the film The Hours. In Etude No. 2, Glass propels a surprisingly romantic melody that would not have been out of place in a Rachmaninoff concerto. The third etude riffs engagingly on modern jazz while an unabashed pop tune forms the basis of Etude No.6. Glass’ ingenuity at developing melodic fragments and devising pianistic challenges are consistently impressive throughout this cycle.

The virtuosic intricacies of the etudes at times overwhelmed Glass’ limitations as a pianist. While he knows his music like no one else, the technical strain was palpable.

Once past these showpieces, however, Glass relaxed and gave incisive, flowing performances of transcriptions from his organ, film and theater scores. Unlike many musicians who play his pieces with relentless metronomic exactness, Glass is considerably more free with rhythm and tonal coloration. Indeed he drew a vibrant, almost orchestral sonority from the sometimes harsh-sounding house Yamaha.

Mad Rush (1980) is an abridged version of a thirty-minute organ piece, originally conceived for the massive pipe organ at New York’s Cathedral of St. John the Divine. Eventually reconfigured for choreographer Lucinda Childs, this highly embroidered ¬†vignette is hypnotic, drawing the listener in through variations of color and texture.

Metamorphoses (1989) combines excerpts from scores for the Errrol Morris film A Thin Blue Line and a theatrical staging of Kafka’s novel in three pieces that were moving in their quietly meditative style.

The composer’s fascination with the music of India and Eastern cultures can be felt in Dreaming Awake (2006), conceived for performance at a Tibetan studies center. For all its exotic figuration, lovely Chopinesque filigree decorate the keyboard line.

Wichita Vortex Sutra stems from Glass’s 1990 collaboration with the late Allen Ginsberg on the chamber opera Hydrogen Jukebox. Originally the finale to the first act, the music accompanies a recording of Ginsberg reciting a 1960’s anti-Vietnam war poem. As Glass noted in his spoken introduction, Ginsberg’s reflections on war and the divisive politics of Washington remain relevant today. It was absolutely eerie to hear the poet’s distinctively raspy voice and agitated manner on the recording. Glass provided an eloquent musical backdrop in the narrative tradition of Copland’s Lincoln Portrait but stylistically from a different musical universe.

The youthful audience awarded the 74-year-old composer repeated standing ovations throughout the program. He was clearly playing for a gathering of true believers. As a final encore, he offered a soft piece originally titled Opening. Now redubbed Closing, it was an appropriate conclusion to an engrossing sampler of the restless mind and spirit of an important American creative artist.

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Fri Mar 18, 2011
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