‘Dracula’ and Third Angle reviews: two faces of Philip Glass

A pair of Portland concerts celebrating the composer's 80th birthday display his dramatic and classical styles

by MATTHEW ANDREWS

My first encounter with the music of Philip Glass was, appropriately, in the theater. The community college I attended after high school put on a selection of one-act plays from David Ives’ recently published All In The Timing. Between acts there would be music, and before “Philip Glass Buys A Loaf of Bread” the sound guy would play a minute or two of “Act III” from The Photographer. I’ll never forget the way that glorious, electrifying music filled the wings of the small theater like the angels going up and down Jacob’s Ladder. Shortly thereafter I acquired a copy of Glassworks and was hooked for life.

Every new recording from the library or used record store was like discovering a new world. A cassette of the 1995 Kronos Quartet recording of four Glass quartets kept me company in my first year away at college. Satyagraha, plucked more or less at random off a shelf in the Costa Mesa public library, became my constant companion on more than one choir tour, shaping my musical imagination in ways that are still unfolding. And I recall one memorable winter break driving around Northern California listening obsessively to a single cassette’s worth of Einstein with my brother, who had just discovered Glass in college.

Philip Glass

Glass repeatedly calls himself a theater composer. That’s certainly where he’s spent most of his energy, and a concern for narrative drive paired with a strong dramatic voice is the defining feature of his best work. Even his more abstract concert pieces—the seven string quartets, the eleven symphonies, the various concerti, and so on—carry this theatrical stamp. It was American conductor Dennis Russell Davies, a longtime Glass advocate, who persuaded the composer to make the jump from opera to symphony, commissioning ten symphonies to date. It was just Portland‘s good luck to hear these two sides, dramatic and abstract, in concerts only a few weeks apart this fall.

Classical Glass

In early November, I found myself peering into Northwest Portland warehouse windows looking for the furniture store where Third Angle New Music was set to perform an evening of Glass’ chamber music. (Especially fitting: the resonance with Satie’s prophetic Furniture Music, the spirit of which passed directly to Cage and thence to Glass.) An area upstairs was cleared for a small audience and smaller stage; both were packed to standing, posh austere stools arranged in rows around a square platform in one corner of the show floor. There were gathered the Third Angle strings, joined by Oregon Symphony cellist Trevor Fitzpatrick and the Pacific Northwest’s favorite rehire, Juilliard-trained violist and ”composer in the woods” Kenji Bunch.

As is Third Angle’s custom, the show began with little fuss and bother. First violinist Ron Blessinger stepped up front and center, flanked by Bunch and 3A cellist Marilyn de Oliveira, and dug right into the dashing scales and tremulant chromatic chord changes of Einstein on the Beach’s “Knee Play 2.” de Oliveira and Bunch launched into Christopher Knowles’ original spoken word incantations, looping snippets of text like “Could it be a balloon” and “You know they just don’t make clothes for people who wear glasses.”

The audience settled into a hushed, meditative ecstasy. We hundred or two total Glass nuts huddled together in a furniture store (to say nothing of the sold out Schnitz crowd) love all this music deeply. I think we can all share stories of our first time hearing his music (consider Nico Muhly’s story about Music in 12 Parts), how we discovered various facets of it over time, how we discovered that some loved it from the bottom of their being while others rejected it with visceral passion.

Third Angle played Philip Glass’s music in a Portland furniture shop. Photo: Jacob Wade.

After the Einstein opener, it was all classical for Third Angle and Philip Glass. String Quartet No. 5 was composed, naturally, for Kronos; it remains a particularly good example of Glass at his most classically elegant and lyrical. Like any well-trained post-modernist, he plays with traditional classical forms, achieving a compactness of expression and unity of thematic development I generally associate with Haydn.

This quartet’s dance rhythms are very much concert hall dance rhythms, not the surging modernist bustle of his many hours of actual dance music but the more stately, refined dance rhythms of court and chamber music (odd meters notwithstanding). 3A’s relaxed tempi—noticeably slower than that oh-so-familiar Kronos cassette, closer to Zorá Quartet’s performance last March—worked wonders precisely here. Nobody is dancing in the furniture store. We’re all sitting, listening to the music abstractly, watching the players or the patterns on the walls or imagining galaxies in our minds, certainly not dancing ourselves or beholding movement and choreography.

In other words, it was normal classical music. We always sublimate our passions in classical music; it’s what makes it classical music. This entire quartet is, to my ears, the epitome of what I love about Classical Glass (as opposed to Film and Theater Glass, Touring Professional Glass, et al—not that they’re easy to sharply distinguish, as the string quartets which started life as theater and film music testify). The characters and plot are the formal musical elements themselves, melodic motives and harmonic themes standing in for heroes and villains, formal structure and thematic development standing in for dialogue and dramatic drive.

If you’ve ever taken a music theory class, you’ve probably heard a teacher at a piano playing a very small slice of music to demonstrate a theoretical point. Four or five measures of Bach’s First Prelude in C Major to illustrate perfectly distilled uses of diminished seventh chords, for instance. You might hear those four measures several times, turned inside out, wrenched and squeezed of all its meaning before moving onto the next illustration. A good teacher will play with all the different possibilities of those chords, make their functionality a living, audible thing. After a class like that I’ll go out humming two measures of Mozart or Puccini or whatever, amazed at the profundities hiding in the smallest of musical gestures.

A lot of Glass’ best music sounds like that to me. Not surprising, given his thorough grounding in common practice counterpoint and voice leading at the hands of Nadia Boulanger, one of Modern Music’s first Goddesses. This obsession with healthy voice leading suffuses all of Glass’ work, but it started becoming especially apparent in the mature concert compositions he started turning out in his fifties. Davies grabbed hold of Glass and got him to churn out two symphonies in as many years, first the famous Low Symphony in 1992 and then the experimental, polytonal Symphony No. 2 of 1994. Symphony No. 3 followed, a special commission from Davies “for the 19 string players of the Stuttgart Orchestra, using them all as individual (or solo) players.”

It is this third symphony which Third Angle performed as the third piece on their all-Glass concert. Or rather, it was the version for string sextet which stalwart Glass interpreter Michael Riesman created for the Glass Chamber Players in 2009. Fitzpatrick and Bunch joined the quartet for a performance that immediately hit the top of my “favorite chamber music concerts of 2017” list. The symphony/sextet is, like the fifth quartet, abstract and classical. The odd-metered even-numbered movements, performed at the evening’s customary relaxed tempi, yielded new mysteries like a 45 played at 33 ⅓ (it wasn’t that slow, but you know what I mean).

The highlight of the concert—of the year—came in the third movement, with its steadfast ostinato and yearning melody like something out of a Beethoven adagio. In his recent book Words Without Music (which is pure bliss, go read it), Glass explicitly links the eight-voice counterpoint of this movement to his studies with Boulanger some thirty years earlier. I’m certain she would be satisfyingly disapproving, but the rest of us sure love the hell out of it.

Third Angle’s Blessinger and de Oliveira played music by Philip Glass. Photo: Jacob Wade.

The group certainly seemed to be having a good time too. de Oliveiros held on to the cello’s slow minor third ostinato with meditative rapture before finally joining in the counterpoint; first violinist Blessinger made that face I’ve come to recognize in a year of watching him play difficult, beautiful music, a look of intense concentration turning into something like illumination when those gorgeous high notes start floating above the texture like singing voices in the rafters. Suddenly the brevity of the sextet’s fourth and final movement makes sense: no vast conclusion is necessary or even desired after a third movement with such weight.

Dracula, a play about a dragon

Glass as performer, as collaborator, and as theater composer all come together in works like Dracula, which he and the Kronos Quartet brought to downtown Portland’s Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall October 25 for a live performance and screening.

It is a truism of film scoring that if the audience notices the music, the composer has failed at least partially. It says something, then, that I could attend a live concert starring the legendary Kronos Quartet and the divine Philip Glass and spend most of it gripped by an old horror picture.

Tod Browning’s immortal (ha) 1931 film was based, naturally, not on the book but on the play. The movie’s beats are essentially theatrical, hinging on conversations and tests of will and the like, interspersed with some of the same practical and in-camera special effects Cocteau later employed in his La belle et la Bête (which Glass later rescored, somewhat controversially) and which Coppola subsequently reborrowed for his wonderful 1992 retelling of the Count’s story.

The music, listened to on its own, doesn’t have a whole lot going for it; as with most film scores, you’re more likely to hear it in suite form unless you’ve got the images to go with. That’s how it’s intended. But to hear a complete film score synched live to film is almost always a treat (the Oregon Symphony does it a few times a year). I should put that the other way around, though: we’re not hearing a score with a visual component, we’re watching a movie with the score performed live. In this way it’s more like watching an old silent movie (or Hollywood Theater’s Pipe Organ Pictures series), with all the nuance a live performance can provide.

The Count conducts Glass and Kronos Quartet’s performance of Glass’s ‘Dracula’ score at a screening of the film at Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall. Photo: Kimmie Fadem.

At the Schnitz concert, presented by Portland5 and Chamber Music Northwest, Glass came out like a rock star. Kronos Quartet is as close as classical gets to Famous Rock Group, but Philip Glass is something else entirely, a demigod in his own lifetime, a Founder. It was like seeing Keith Richards play. I’ve been lucky enough to hear Glass live in this town twice, and both times it was a live score-to-picture kind of deal (the other was at the Portland Art Museum in 2001 when Philip Glass Ensemble was touring a week’s worth of pictures, including Powaqqatsi and La belle et la Bête).

There’s invariably something sly and sideways about Glass at the keyboard, whether we’re talking about his 1989 album Solo Piano, his Riley-esque overdubbed organs on North Star, his unique style of leadership, or this absurdly fast performance of “Opening” on Letterman. The Dracula appearance at the Schnitz was no different. Kronos can technically play this music on their own, and veteran PGE keyboardist/ percussionist/ conductor Mick Rossi had the synching handled, as well as his own piano part. But, no, it wouldn’t be the same without that Philip Glass touch fleshing out the texture, so (as Glass noted in the video below) he wrote himself a part just for this tour.

Once I’d sat and gaped for a moment, assuring myself that it was really the superstars themselves and not simulacra or something, I just got really sucked into the movie. It’s a great horror movie, one of those Deserving Classics, and Glass’ score actually works really nicely as a piece of film music. It underlines a lot of the comedy and much of the foreboding, that Greek tragedy element of knowing what’s happening and being unable to resist or look away. It turns out that Philip Glass, after a few decades scoring movies and a career of writing music for theater, actually knows how to get the job done.

Legacy

And here, at last, we come to the question of lineage. Philip Glass is a spry 80 and seems intent on securing his legacy: He can’t seem to stop writing new music, cranking out symphonies and concerti and film scores and operas, building up a body of work which will outlast all of us. I’m guessing he’ll be one of those (like Zappa, or Bowie) that won’t let go until well after he’s left the flesh. Already the next generation is playing (and, more importantly, playing with) his music, which has spread well beyond the theater and the opera house and the movie theater into the classical canon, popular culture, and now even the kids are into it.

Seriously, spend a little time on YouTube or Vimeo and you’ll see what I mean: it’s mostly covers of the easiest, most popular stuff (“Opening,” “Truman Sleeps,” “Koyaanisqatsi”) but it’s all pretty great. The music from Koyaanisqatsi, with its distinctive organ and bass vocals, is ripe for reimagining. Check out the distinctive organ and bass vocals on this cover, or this guy’s solo performance on Eigenharp Alpha, or this remix. The Glassworks track “Opening,” which already experienced one reformulation as the same album’s “Closing,” is open for all manner of interpretations. Here’s one on harp and handpan, another for viola da gamba, a Mogwai-esque version for Teenaged Rock Ensemble, yet another one mashing up covers and other miscellany from around the planet. That same viola da gamba player made an astounding arrangement of the closing movement from Mishima and a really nice harp duet of “Truman Sleeps,” which has been recorded on musical saw and ping pong balls and turns up in myriad solo piano and solo guitar and solo accordion bedroom recordings and this very sweet Casio and violin duet. Perhaps the weirdest find of this little dig: the Berlin ensemble Lautten Compagney, which normally specializes in recordings of Handel and other Baroque composers, but put out an album in 2009 half-full of Glass arrangements. You can hear some of that right here.

Meanwhile, the man himself has steadfastly entered what he calls his “late period.” The string quartet mantle seems to be passing from Kronos to Brooklyn Rider with the latter’s recent recording of Glass’ Sixth and Seventh Quartets; cellist Wendy Sutter has performed solo music and a concerto with orchestra; and violinist Tim Fain has been doing incredible work with Glass works old and new. All the best stuff from the last decade or so glows with the deep, dynamic melancholy which has always been Glass’ greatest strength.

And now Third Angle, having already successfully tended the garden of Steve Reich love in this town, has brought us their Philip Glass. Let’s hope they do it some more.

You can hear more Glass this month with CoHo Productions and the CoHo Clown Cohort. Their new production Philip’s Glass Menagerie, adapted and directed by CoHo artistic director Philip Cuomo, combines Glass’ music with Tennessee Williams’ classic play, a polystilistic mash-up the composer would surely appreciate. The show runs January 19-27 as part of the Fertile Ground Festival of New Work. More information is available here: http://www.cohoproductions.org/coming-soon/philips-glass-menagerie.

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Matthew Neil Andrews is a composer, singer, percussionist, and editor at Portland State University, and serves on the board of Cascadia Composers. He and his music can be reached at monogeite.bandcamp.com.

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