Composer Philip Glass received a standing ovation the moment he walked onstage at Oz Nashville on Friday. “Don’t stand now,” Glass protested playfully to the cheering crowd. “I haven’t done anything yet.”
Glass is in town this weekend with the terrific violinist Tim Fain to present the final concert of Oz Nashville’s inaugural season. On Friday night, the two musicians presented a program devoted entirely to the famed composer’s music for piano and violin. The concert repeats at 8 p.m. Saturday, June 21.
Glass opened with his solo piano arrangement of Mad Rush, a 1979 work originally composed for pipe organ to mark a visit by the Dalai Lama to New York City’s Cathedral of St. John the Divine. Glass noted that he was asked to write a work of “indefinite length” since no one was sure when the Dalai Lama would make his appearance. Not surprisingly, the composer decided to write the piece in his minimalist style, no doubt because the various repetitive cells in this kind of music can, theoretically at least, be drawn out forever.
Friday’s performance of Mad Rush lasted a mere 15 minutes. The piece is typical of Glass’ minimalist style – it boasts those all-too-familiar oscillating left-hand accompaniment figures and sparkling right-hand arpeggios. Every so often, Glass would pass his right hand over his left to play a single declaratory low bass note, a gesture akin to a writer adding an exclamation point to a sentence. Although the title suggests a work of fiendish difficulty, Mad Rush is in fact a mostly ambient piece that poses few technical challenges to the pianist. Glass performed the work from memory and with a lot of feeling, winning warm applause at the end.
Fain, who is perhaps best known for his performances in The Black Swan and Twelve Years a Slave, is a violinist of the first rank, so it was hardly surprising to find Glass writing for Fain music of vertiginous virtuosity. By far the most challenging music was from Glass’ seven-movement Partita for Solo Violin. Fain played several selections from this work during the evening. The most impressive of these pieces was the “Chaconne,” a work that filtered the 18th-century Baroque techniques of J.S. Bach through the prism of Glass’ 21st-century style. Playing with minimum vibrato, Fain produced a tone that was pure, focused and luminous, and his technique was polished to perfection.
The music from the Partita was abstract and complex. The violin and piano music from The Screens, composed as incidental music for the play by Jean Genet, was lyrical and immensely approachable. Glass and Fain played three selections – the songful “France,” soulful “The Orchard” and sensuous “The French Lieutenant.” All three pieces were performed with nuance and sensitivity.
The highlight of the concert, for my money, was Wichita Vortex Sutra, which featured a recording of the late Allen Ginsberg reading one of his poems, with Glass providing live piano accompaniment. Ginsberg read his poem about an anti-war activist driving through Kansas with a palpable sense of ecstasy and joy. Glass played with energy and color.
Glass first came to fame in the 1970s for his performances in intimate spaces, mostly small art galleries and lofts in Lower Manhattan. The performances that Glass and Fain are giving this weekend at Oz Nashville are equally intimate. I sat perhaps 10 feet behind the composer, and I had the impression at times that I was listening to the great man performing in his living room. That by itself was worth the price of admission.
IF YOU GO
Philip Glass and Tim Fain perform at 8 p.m. Saturday, June 21 at Oz Nashville, 6172 Cockrill Bend Cir. Tickets are $75 and are available here.