Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Philip Glass, with Tim Fain, last night at the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts

The Kauffman hosted a memorable performance by Philip Glass and Tim Fain.

Posted By on Wed, Apr 4, 2012 at 12:05 PM

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After briefly introducing the musical program for the night, Philip Glass sat in front of a grand Steinway piano and began playing with absolutely zero fuss - no adjusting, no knuckle-cracking, no nothing. While certainly everyone in Helzberg Hall was impressed with the virtuosity that unfolded over the next 90-or-so minutes, no one was surprised: Glass is not just world-renowned but also so lauded and revered that he is often spoken of as if he's already dead, a man of his own time. Completely alive at 75 years, he's an artist who has built a curriculum vitae longer than a phone contract's fine print, and he has worked with some the most dignified writers, filmmakers and songwriters of the 20th century's second half. Instead of having birthdays like normal people, Glass is celebrated with the term "anniversary," that being of his appearance on our planet. Sure, he's a human, like you and you and you (and me), but something about him stinks of a superhuman. Evidently, he has more complete piano pieces stuffed inside his brain than most of us have accurate adjectives, and he plays them with the ease of a normal person's breathing.

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He began with an adaptation of his own work - what nerve! Sans sheet music, Glass sauntered through selections of "Metamorphosis," which moved from the lethargic to the dizzying, but stuck with a somberness throughout, one that fits nicely with Kafka's darkest, most introspective moments. In this set, Glass alternately slapped damningly low F's and G's with his right hand, while his left kept the tune pulsating mid-keyboard, like a newly resuscitated heart.

Between pieces, he stood and spoke calmly but quickly about what he was to play and where it came from, with whom he has performed it before, or what was going to come next. In fact, Glass deviated a bit from the printed program and did so because, according to him, "I can do that kind of thing." OK, fair enough: The hall belonged to the mild-mannered Glass, in a suit but no tie. But he did give up the stage for long lengths of time after first introducing Tim Fain, who was to play the "Partita for Solo Violin in Seven Movements," which Glass explained he had modified himself for reasons "I don't know why."

Tim Fain came out with his violin after a few of Glass's pieces, and though it might seem like a rough gig to have to play anything after Philip Glass, Fain, too, is - you guessed it - an incredible performer, working through the technically difficult (understatement) and emotively expansive (double-understatement) partita with a physical grace most people pine for when watching sporting events, all on an instrument older than these United States, no less. Fain looks like an athlete, too - tall enough to look only a little goofy when he dips down and sways with the hidden rhythms of the pieces, shifting his pointy-toed shoes front to back along the wooden stage, and wide-shouldered enough to look frightening when stabbing the bow into the air and back toward the ground in a frantic, somewhat onanistic manner. Perhaps because of the audience's captivation, or perhaps because of a decorum unknown to this reviewer, the audience didn't clap at all between the movements of his solo performance. After stopping, Fain seemed to readjust and balk a bit; after a few long seconds, he spoke self-deprecatingly into the violin's microphone about his exhalations, which were audible but not distracting. Actually, hearing his breath over the fluttering of his bow attack gave the performance an intimacy that could only be rivaled if Glass took off his pants and played etudes. It was like getting hit with sweat at a boxing match.

The two performers then settled on the stage together, with Glass at the piano (with sheet music, finally, gosh) and Fain facing the expensive seats in the orchestra pit, the two never looking at each other during their performance, save one sly look as they both crashed down on a crippling note during "Pendulum." A seated woman in front leaned forward, chin on fist, and stayed that way longer than was interesting to observe, probably marveling at how each musician plays an instrument that ends up seeming like an extension of his own body, that somehow he can control the timbre produced from wood and catgut better than most of us can control our own mouths or eyes. As with the activities of most experts, we laypeople in attendance had to trust in the accuracy of their performance - really, no one but Glass or Fain knows of any misstep or elaboration, because each played with such a prowess as to render the final products ostensibly flawless.

Though Glass is widely characterized by and appreciated for his use of repetitions, this wasn't especially foregrounded in Tuesday evening's program. An exception would be the dark recurrences found in "The Orchard," a piece Glass collaboratively wrote for a Jean Genet play, "The Screens," after that writer had already been dead half a decade. The motif found here is simple and husky, accented with a haunting right-hand plash that made the room sad. Fain's violin sang over the elementary dirge, and we were made to believe that all the suffering in the world was happening here and now, on the hardwood stage of Helzberg Hall. But any mournfulness from the evening's performance washed away when Glass and Fain took their bows: The crowd gave them an exuberant standing-O because - duh - they deserved one. Who would sit there cramped and creaky and as quiet as possible for 80 minutes of transcendent, technically rich and intercontinentally flavored music, and not want to see just a little bit more, just one little tiny encore?

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To satisfy the crowd, Glass played a movement from Glassworks, an album supposedly written for the masses. He stayed on his piano bench while Fain finished out the night with a feverish, bumblebee attack that seemed to climb up past the Grand Tier of the hall and settle back on his left hand's fingers. The night's final note, which seemed as if it would precede another, stalled out, and made more than just a few members of the crowd gasp aloud. This must be the violinist's equivalent of the magic trick: To create the illusion of a sound that's not there - a phantom note, played so loud it hurts.

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