St George’s Bristol (Tue 14 May)
He may have taken inspiration from Ravi Shankar, but there’s no mistaking the modernist Americana which lies at the heart of Philip Glass’s so-called ‘systems’ music. That’s Americana as in subways, escalators, Time Square, planes, trains and automobiles rather than backwoods Cajun rave-ups and duelling banjos, but there’s an engagement there with both what Don DeLillo called the ‘Cosmopolis’ and the great open spaces of a Beatnik road trip. There’s also an awful lot of ‘aura’ – Glass, after all, has worked with the likes of Martin Scorsese, Allen Ginsberg, Patti Smith, Woody Allen. He is, in short, the business, a composer and musician whose career has spanned the outer reaches of the avant-garde and Hollywood commissions. Unsurprisingly, his appearance at St George’s sold out months ago.
In person, Glass is engagingly diffident – more Allen than Scorsese. He might have had another life playing misplaced intellectual teachers in films of John Irving novels. For the first half of tonight’s concert, he assaults – and that’s probably precisely the word – his own ‘Etudes’, twenty pieces which, almost inevitably, echo Chopin’s equivalent suite of technique-stretching piano works. We get eight of them, a 40-minute set of exploratory mood-swings, culminating in one of the most recent, which has late-night, whistle-blowing trains written all over it: a Jim Jarmusch movie in less than five minutes.
After the break, it’s pretty much a straight run-through of the 1989 album ‘Solo Piano’, beginning with the utterly beautiful ‘Mad Rush’ (written in 1979 as a welcome gesture to the Dalai Lama on his first visit to New York) and three out of five pieces from the Kafka-inspired ‘Metamorphosis’ (‘The first and last pieces are actually the same,’ admits Glass) before the impeccably Beatnik ‘Wichita Vortex Sutra’. With words by Ginsberg, in particularly bonkers mode, played on tape, this last is a jolt, a reminder, that while Glass has effortlessly eased into the mainstream, his origins remain in the American counter-culture scene – more at home with Patti Smith and Steve Reich than others who’ve whipped his ideas and turned them into Classical FM fodder. (Tom Phillips)
Copyright Tom Phillips 2013