Philip Glass Union Chapel, London Review
Can it really be true that Philip Glass, inventor of a “minimalist” style of repeating patterns imitated on a thousand pop albums and film and TV scores, is 75 years old? He certainly didn’t seem it when he emerged on to the Union Chapel stage for this 40-year retrospective concert. The curly hair has barely receded and has only a touch of grey.
He and the six other members of the ensemble – two more electronic keyboard players alongside Glass, three wind players hidden behind them, and a singer off to one side – took their seats to cheers. Things paused, as everyone gathered their concentration. Suddenly, musical director Michael Riesman counted a rapid one-two-three-four-five-SIX, and they were off.
Part of the pleasure of a Glass Ensemble concert is that it fixes the flavour of an era just as sharply as a Poulenc ballet fixes Paris in the 1920s. The sound of those keyboards, as sharp and glowing as a Nevada motel sign, the flat, deliberately expressionless blending of the winds and voice, even the look of singer Lisa Bielawa in her Indian-style chemise, all evoked those far-off groovy Seventies – even when the music itself dated from the Eighties or Nineties.
As for the actual content of the music; well, if you hate Glass’s repetitions on principle you would have been ready to run amok after two-and-a-quarter hours of them. Never have I heard so many arpeggios in one evening. And yet I found the concert enthralling, partly because of the stamina and concentration of the players.
Like Bach, Glass is indifferent to the needs of singers and wind players to breathe, and at times they simply had to pause in the onrush. This meant the keyboard players had to take the strain. Riesman in particular was a marvel, able to jump from one keyboard and tempo to another in the blink of an eye.
Of course there were longueurs, where the repetitions felt limp.
But in the best of the pieces, such as the magnificent Floe from Glassworks, the interlocking patterns came together to make something majestic. And there was humour too, as in Spaceship from Einstein on the Beach, which the Ensemble played as an encore. Its jerky harmonic patterns, played with amazing nimble-fingeredness, were like a witty parody of the conservatoire harmony exercises of Glass’s youth.
Glass’s minimalism can seem mean-spirited, with its constant repetitions; this concert showed how generous it truly is.
Thank you to Ivan Hewett, Daily Telegraph for his review.