United States Philip Glass, Mixtape: Adam Tendler (piano), Jenny Lin (piano). Presented by San Francisco Performances, Herbst Theatre, San Francisco, 19.11.2022. (HS)
Glass – Mad Rush (arr. Lin/Tendler); Distant Figure: Passacaglia for solo piano; Selections from Les enfants terribles for two pianos [world premiere]; Etude No.16; Etude No.2; Four Movements for Two Pianos
A ‘mixtape’ is a term that dates from the 1970s, which is about when composer Philip Glass hit the scene with his music. To make a mixtape, one copied a few favorite tracks to a cassette (remember cassettes?), usually with some attempt to create smooth segues from one piece to the next.
Pianists Adam Tendler and Jenny Lin applied the idea to their recital of Glass piano works at the Herbst Theatre in San Francisco, and it made a certain sense. The first two pieces, for example, began and ended with similar musical figures, a back-and-forth between two adjoining notes. These solo pieces were played without pause, first Tendler with Mad Rush, written in 1979 for a New York appearance by the Dalai Lama, and then Lin with Distant Figure, a more recent piece.
The contrast between the two works demonstrated how Glass’s musical style became richer and more complex over the 38 years that separated them.
In the hypnotic style familiar from his early minimalist pieces, Mad Rush establishes a shifting melodic gesture repeat. Tendler seemed to hang it in the air, until the right hand reached left for the next chord and pitched a minor third lower to create a sort of sigh. As the piece progressed, a chiming figure in the right hand gradually expanded with each repetition, another Glass signature. Tendler’s playing here softened the edges of Glass’s repetitiveness, making the piece into a meditation certainly appropriate for the Dalai Lama.
Without a break, Lin segued into Distant Figure, subtitled ‘Passacaglia for solo piano’. Although a traditional passacaglia is based on a repeated bass line and constructs variations above it, the Glass version, written in 2017, sort of sneaks in the bass line late in the piece. It begins with a gently rocking shift of a minor third. Instead of a bass line, we hear cycles of shifting chords, with contrasting rhythms – triplets and sextuplets against twos and fours – creating unexpected variations as the music swells to a climactic finish against, finally, a strong bass line. Lin found a supple groove to bring this colorful music to life. Her touch brought out the sparkle in the ever-growing arpeggios and other elaborations that reached a rich climax before receding in the final few measures.
Next came four segments from Glass’s 1996 Les enfants terribles, the third opera in his Cocteau Trilogy (the others were La belle et la bête and Orphée). Originally done for three pianos, this reduction for two was billed as a world premiere. The pianists tore into the overture with crispness and a sense of abandon, then painted a somewhat softer portrait for ‘The Somnambulist’. The third segment, ‘Are You in Love, Agathe?’, came off as a study in musical swirls, which dipped and dodged in unusual directions. The finale, ‘Paul’s End’, eventually returned to some of the dissonances from the overture and brought the first half to a lively finish.
The second half of the program followed a similar arc. Two solo etudes, written in 1994 and 2012, preceded a two-piano suite. Lin squeezed plenty of harmonic sweetness out of Etude No.16. Without a pause, Tendler entered with Etude No.2 in C major, lending a deft touch to this study in arpeggios. It nods to Bach’s C-major prelude from The Well-Tempered Klavier before straying into more complex harmonies.
Four Movements for Two Pianos from 2008, the biggest and perhaps most challenging work on this program, summarized Glass’s tropes and style ideally, and got an enthusiastic and impressive performance. Lin and Tendler relished the contrasting sections of Movement I, first driving rhythmically before finding a softer respite. A gentle pace brought out the harmonic subtleties of the quieter Movement II.
The pianists dug into Movement III, which gets its fireworks from overlapping meters, bringing the music to a thrilling climax before subsiding into an unexpectedly quick finish. Movement IV settled into one of the composer’s signature ostinatos, which sent off pianistic flourishes and harmonic surprises until its ending disappeared in mid-phrase.
The appropriately named encore, ‘Closing’ from Glassworks (1982), sent the audience home with a six-minute bubbly romp through contrasting rhythms and quickly shifting harmonies.