The world is great! In perfect weather – sunshine and blue skies – today I attended Philip Glass’s performance celebrating the Menil’s 25th Anniversary. Tucked away in a white tent on the lawn of the museum, the world moved more slowly and took a breath.
Glass was commissioned by the Menil to compose a new work in honor of their anniversary. The 17th Etude, which made its debut today, is the latest in a series of solo piano works that Glass has composed between 1994 and 2012.
In line with the Menil Collection’s continued support of its community, the Glass performance was free. Museum members and general public could sign up for tickets online (first come, first served) but with stand-by tickets available the day of, people were lined up to get seats a good hour before general seating in the hopes that they would get in.
I am a fan of Glass and saw his opera Satygraha (based on Gandhi’s life in South Africa) at the Met in NYC in 2008. I also have several of his recordings including Metamorphosis (played at the show) and Einstein on the Beach, his epic work that has been performed in the US this year. But this was my first time to see him perform his own work. At 75, Glass appeared as virtuosic and down to earth as I had heard, introducing each piece with a brief historical note prior to it being played.
The show opened with 7 Etudes (Nos. 1, 2, 4, 6, 9, 17, and 10) and was followed by Mad Rush (1980) which was originally set for an organ and commissioned as a welcome piece for the Dali Lama. It was eventually modified for solo piano, shortened, and used by choreographer Lucinda Childs. Next Metaphorphosis (3 sections) and finally Wichita Vortex Sutra (1990). This piece started as a collaboration between Allen Ginsberg and Glass in an opera called Hydrogen Jukebox. Hydrogen was first premiered in 1990 with Glass on piano and Ginsberg reciting his poetry which was anti-war in theme. This opera included the Wichita Vortex Sutra section played at the performance today (a recording of Ginsberg’s portion accompanied Glass at the show today). In Glass’ introduction, he let the audience know that this was not a piece he normally performs but that it’s anti-war theme seemed timely.
In my mind, Glass’ work glorifies the sacred and monumental nature of the banal. It sounds like a walk down a street – your recurrent strides punctuated by the sights and sounds around you. It sounds like the soft tumbling of a dryer whose muffled racket can lull you to sleep. His work – influenced heavily by Eastern music – is simple and repetitive. Where grand melodic gestures might exist in other people’s work, Glass replaces with an arc slightly outside the current key only return to its original home. Where definitive endings might be anticipated in other works, you listen to Glass knowing a moment could end mid-sentence. And in that way, Glass has executed a body of work that reflects humanity. He has shown that life’s tireless monotony is made soothing because even in its awkwardness, it continues, that beauty is not always celebrated with a dramatic action, and that intimacy comes from the threading of a few notes, over and over again, in sublime permutation.
The Philip Glass Ensemble will be at Jones Hall on May 10, 2013 to perform Glass’ soundtrack to the classic film Dracula with Bela Lugosi. Tickets can be purchased at the Society for the Performing Arts Site.
Here are the Etudes (1,2,4,6,9,17,10) that Glass performed today – save No. 17 which made it’s world debut at the performance.