July 21, 2018
Philip Glass’ music has its very obvious thumbprints, which is why you can always spot one of his compositions instantly (unless it’s the work of a Glass imitator). But within that set of compositional concerns lies a vast world of subtle variations.
So an evening of many of the composer’s short pieces, like the one presented on Friday, July 20, at SFJazz, can be at once homogeneous and full of surprises. With Glass, you always know more or less what you’re going to get — repetitive figuration, moody minor harmonies, an occasional sinuous melody — but the rewards are in the details.
Perhaps the most obviously charming aspect of the program was its ragtag character — the sense that it was an assemblage of pieces that were playable (whether by original design or through apt arrangement) by this unorthodox collection of instruments. The fact that there was no overall agenda or consistent plotline lent the proceedings a shambling, warm intimacy.
Several of the pieces fed directly into that sensation, particularly a pair of gorgeously evocative pieces that Glass composed for a production of Jean Genet’s play “The Screens.” In gentle, insinuating performances by the trio, the delicate rhythms of “The Orchard” and the sweet harmonies of “The French Lieutenant” (presented as an encore) cast an irresistible spell.
The opportunity to hear Glass’ music in unusual instrumental guises was also a treat. Meijer’s superb renditions of some of the composer’s music for solo piano — excerpts from the sound track for “The Hours,” or the Etude No. 12 — shed new and sometimes revelatory light on music that has long been understood only in its original version.
And Haimovitz’s performances of pieces for solo cello underscored the historical consciousness that runs through more of Glass’ work than his detractors are willing to acknowledge. The Partita No. 2 and another solo piece, not identified in the program, find Glass adapting Bach’s expansive melodies and brisk figuration into his own image; the connection felt even more palpable with Haimovitz’s fluid account of the Prelude from Bach’s Cello Suite No. 1.
The evening’s one unfortunate aspect was the awkward fact that Glass’ skills as a pianist have never been equal to the task of interpreting his own music to the fullest, and they seem to be getting weaker with time. He opened the program with a performance of the iconic “Mad Rush” that was a medley of missed notes and misplaced rhythms, and there was a vagueness about even his most elemental contributions to the chamber works. There’s something to be said for the star power of having the man himself onstage, but even more for hearing his music played with full precision and eloquence.
BY: Joshua Kosman
Joshua Kosman is The San Francisco Chronicle’s music critic.