Live: Philip Glass And Tim Fain Play The Temple Of Dendur


Philip Glass and Tim Fain Play Chamber Works
The Temple Of Dendur, Metropolitan Museum of Art
Saturday, April 21

Better than: Battling tourists to enjoy what may be the most beautiful room in New York City.

The Sackler Wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, containing the more than two-millennium old Temple of Dendur, is by itself one of the most stunning interior spaces in all of New York City, in this writer’s humble opinion. On Saturday night, when it became the latest venue for celebrating Philip Glass’s 75th birthday as the composer took to a Steinway (joined by the violinist Tim Fain), it also became apparent that it has some of the best acoustics for listening to solo instrumentation.

It’s not just that the visual beauty added to experiencing Glass’s chamber pieces. Glass’s compositions, simultaneously modern and classical, created a nice juxtaposition with the space. Many of Glass’s scores have combined a certain modernism with classical subjects (Akhenaten, Kepler, Dracula). The effect is that Glass can simultaneously fuse together a new perspective on an old subject—forcing the listener/viewer to examine the past in a fresh way—while also simultaneously tying various eras together in such a way that the challenges, ideas and struggles their populations once faced feel timeless and connected to the listener now.

WQXR’s Terrance McKnight started the evening by briefly interviewing Glass and Fain, who described growing up on Einstein on the Beach (which couldn’t have been composed very long before the baby faced violinist was born). Fain is one of the few soloists for whom Glass has composed solo material; asked why, Glass answered, “Because he’s that good.”

Glass started the evening at the keyboard alone, scrapping the scheduled “Two Etudes” for “Mad Rush.” The piece was originally written for the organ, composed on the one at St. John the Divine on the occasion of the 14th Dalai Lama’s first appearance in New York City. (Because the exact time of the Dalai Lama’s arrival was not known, Glass was asked to write a piece of “indeterminate length,” which he joked was no problem for him.) He has reworked “Mad Rush” a couple of times for piano, and the effect Saturday night was striking as the opening of the program, particularly in the way Glass’s music can tie together the present and the past. After all, the effect of having simply walked through the Egyptian wing en route to the Temple had not been at all subtle. The audience passed by dozes of mummies, and there were dozens of dead bodies just off to the side of the hall; it was impossible to not think about death and mortality.

And, watching the 75-year-old Glass perform by himself, it was similarly impossible not to think about his mortality, too. He was spry and energetic as usual, but especially after seeing much larger-scale works of his in recent months (Satyagraha, “Music in 12 Parts,” the premiere of
Symphony No. 9), he looked almost vulnerable at the piano by himself. “Glass’s place in musical history is secure,” Alex Ross wrote earlier this year in The New Yorker, and regardless of what comes next for him in the days ahead, that won’t change. The effect of hearing Glass’s hands play out the notes of “Mad Rush”—notes written for the Dalai Lama, ringing off surface material built by the hands of Egyptians thousands of years ago—was powerful indeed. The music will outlast the man himself, much as the Temple of Dendur predated everyone of us in that room that night by a couple millennia and will most likely outlast us by at least just as long.

But that reality made hearing the momentary magic of the music, played by the hands of the person who’d written, all the more fleeting, and connected.

Fain came on by himself to play the “Partita for Solo Violin in Seven Movements,” a piece the two have worked on and refined over many months. Glass thought it was probably the New York premiere of its final form, and apologizedfor the fact that it was 32 minutes long. Watching Fain play Glass’s “Pendulum” from memory at the Tibet House Concert in February was pretty spellbinding, and watching him play this half-hour piece was something altogether more incredible. Partita was much more contemplative in various arias than “Pendulum,” which rushes at the kind of pace it seems like the kind of piece a violinist would play to show off their speed and skill.

Glass gave Fain a break and played two pieces of “Metamorphosis” before the two started playing together with selections from Glass’s score for Jean Cocteau’s The Screens, followed by Pendulum. At 75, Glass reserved the right to forgo the song and dance of an encore, staying on stage to play a selection from “Glass Works” before Fain ended the program playing one of the “knee plays” from Einstein on the Beach.

It was the perfect ending to the evening, with the confident Fain closing things out by pointing his bow at the audience in a playfully menacing way, which made everyone laugh before they applauded. To get a sense of how manic the piece is, here’s video of Fain playing the same piece in 2011:

The Met streamed the whole concert live, and you can watch it here starting on April 26. Three noticeable things that won’t translate to the screen are worth noting, though:

1. The window over the Sackler Wing: High atop the Temple of Dendur is a room, in the Asian wing of the Met, I believe believe, where museum guests can look down into it. By mistake or choice, the Met did not cordon off this window, and so dark silhouettes kept popping up in it and looking down. Given all the mummies around, and the timelessness of the music, the effect was of people’s spirits or ghosts—as seen in Glass-scored films like Naqoyqatsi—visiting.

2. The light rippling in the ceiling: As night settled into the room, the water in the moat around the Temple began reflecting the stage lights. It rippled on the high ceiling of the Museum and, because Glass’s music moves in such small, fast increments of rhythm, moved in time with it.

3. The window as mirror: I’d never been in the Sackler Wing at night. As it got dark outside, it became a giant mirror—for the Temple, the moat, the performers, the audience, and all the Egyptian relics, fusing all of is into one image, connecting us as one.

Critical bias: This was the eighth event this writer has attended celebrating Glass’s 75th birthday, but it was by far the most intimate.

Overheard: “There’s something about the air in here! I haven’t sniffled once!”

Random notebook dump: Indeed, there was something amazing about the air in the Met. My date at the concert—like many in New York City, at present—had been suffering terribly from allergies. But once inside, she stopped sneezing. And, except for one coughing woman who left right in the beginning of the concert, there was utter silence through out—no coughing, no sniffling, no sneezing. The stone of the hall created amazing acoustics for the grand piano and the violin. Carnegie Hall has great acoustics, too; they’re so good, you can hear every sniffle from everyone. The good air the Met purifies and controls for the well being of its collection has the side effect of being good for its audience members’ lungs. The results is perhaps creating the most sniffle-free, unblemished acoustics in the city.

Set list:
Mad Rush (Glass)
Partita for Solo Violin in Seven Movements (Fain)
Metamorphosis (Glass)
Music from The Screens (Glass/Fain)
a. France
b. The Orchard
c. The French Lieutenant
Pendulum (Glass/Fain)
Encore: Selection from Glass Works (Glass)
Knee Play from Einstein on the Beach (Fain)

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