The New Yorker: Philip Glass Reveals His Love for the Cello

October 19, 2017

The cello is the most human of stringed instruments. Its span encompasses both male and female ranges, from basso profundo to coloratura soprano; grasped between the knees, it is not so much possessed by the player as embraced, its shrieks and rumbles absorbed fully by the body. No wonder Philip Glass, who has always been concerned with reaching his audience in as direct a way as possible, has been writing some of the best of his recent music for it.

Philip Glass has been composing some of the best of his recent music for the cello.
Photograph by Gabriella Demczuk / NYT / Redux

I’ve become something of a Glass enthusiast of late, having been struck dumb with admiration (as was most of the audience) at the New York première of his Piano Concerto No. 3, which, in a committed performance by the pianist Simone Dinnerstein and the string orchestra A Far Cry, opened the Miller Theatre season, on September 28th. The concerto’s final movement, a tribute to the composer’s fellow octogenarian minimalist Arvo Pärt, opened out with such spacious calm as to be a meditation on final things. A similar mood pervades Glass’s Partita No. 2 for Solo Cello (2010), which has just been recorded by the cellist Matt Haimovitz, on the album “Philip Glass: Partitas for Solo Cello,” for Orange Mountain Music, Glass’s personal label.

Glass’s love for the cello goes back to the days of his youth, when he worked in his father’s record store and began listening to Bach’s Suites for Solo Cello. But it was his personal romance with the cellist Wendy Sutter that inspired him to compose the Partita No. 1, “Songs and Poems” (2007), which Haimovitz also recorded for this album. Sutter’s own performance of “Songs and Poems” (which she recorded on a previous Orange Mountain Music release) has a luminous violence that contrasts strikingly with Haimovitz’s more ruminative style and dusky, hooded tone. But Haimovitz is right at home in the gently rhapsodic Partita No. 2, as well as in “The Secret Agent,” a vigorous arrangement of music that Glass wrote for the 1996 film of the same name.

It may be ironic that a composer who first reached a mass audience with massive operas and capacious film scores is now choosing to communicate through the most intimate means possible. But for his fans, new and old, it only reinforces the basic genius that made those larger works viable in the first place. Going back to Bach has given Glass a new way to show just how original he really is.

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Read at: The New Yorker

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