During the 1990s, Bruce Brubaker used to give occasional recitals at Harvard University. The concerts followed a fairly set formula: standard repertoire at the beginning and end, new music in the middle. For one program, he played a selection of etudes by Philip Glass, new works that the composer had just given him, bookended by pieces of Schubert and Schumann.
The reaction was striking. Brubaker’s “musician friends,” as he called them in a recent conversation, seemed almost dismissive of the minimalist works in the middle. For the students who attended, it was the reverse. “That sonata by Schubert was nice enough,” he paraphrased their reaction, “but, wow, that music by Glass!”
The split between enthusiasm and disdain for new music is almost as old as music itself. But in Glass’s case, the divided reaction to his short, simple melodies, slow-moving harmonies, and blocks of repetition is so sharp that listeners seem to be residing in different worlds. A perceptive Glass critic, Terry Teachout, wrote in a recent issue of “Commentary” about Glass’s instrumental works from the last four decades that “I have yet to hear one that struck me as anything other than excruciatingly boring.” How to reconcile that with the listener who found one of Brubaker’s recordings so achingly lovely that he sent an e-mail to the pianist saying that the music “reminds me of how beautiful life can be, even in the most dramatic moments”? Another wrote to tell the pianist “your work made my life better.”
“I never get letters like that about my Schumann records,” added Brubaker, who chairs the piano department at New England Conservatory and has a new CD, “Glass Piano,” coming out in June.
The disparity is nothing new. In his recently published autobiography, “Words Without Music,” Glass writes of enthusiastic reception to some of his pieces, but also recalls a 1969 concert in which an audience member jumped on stage and began banging on the piano during his performance of “Two Pages.” Glass promptly socked the interloper in the jaw and continued the concert. “That was the first time someone actually tried to stop a concert of mine, but not the last,” he writes with remarkable equanimity.
Because Glass’s music seems like the site of a clash of absolutes, it’s helpful to talk to musicians about the things that draw them in, and about what they find alienating. Nick Dinnerstein is a cellist who’s been organizing a series of monthly “Composer Portrait” concerts at the Lilypad in Inman Square. Sunday’s is devoted to Glass, and will include his second and fourth string quartets, as well as a selection of the “Metamorphoses” for solo piano.
“All of Glass’s music isn’t for me,” Dinnerstein candidly admitted. The works he’s attracted to are those that link more closely to the Western classical tradition — “counterpoint, a structure of movements that are 10 minutes or so. I like his melodies, I like his harmonies. That’s where I find his music to be most compelling.”
Hence his programming of the Fourth Quartet, with its arresting opening and dissonant second movement, which give it “a really direct emotional quality for me,” Dinnerstein said. The Second Quartet, less than 10 minutes long, was originally written for an adaptation of Samuel Beckett’s short story “Company,” which perhaps explains its abrupt, dramatic gestures: “You kind of get the sense that it’s journey through different kinds of tempi and rhythmic structures.”
But what of Glass’s earlier music, the sprawling works that stretched tiny harmonic and rhythmic changes over a huge canvas — “Music in Fifths,” or “Music in 12 Parts”?
“Maybe I would have to be in the right mind-set,” Dinnerstein replied diplomatically.
For Brubaker, by contrast, the power and freshness of Glass’s music lie precisely in the epic spans the composer constructs with such simple elements. “One’s awareness of how time passes is different in this music,” he explains. “In the best pieces there’s less a narrative and more of a kind of state of being, a state of newness.
“There’s a compression of the senses of before, now, and after,” he continued, “to the point where there really isn’t any before and after but only the present. Philip’s music finds that spot — it’s this kind of presence in the moment.”
Not only that, Brubaker added, but he thinks his involvement with Glass has enriched his approach to older music. When Glass began to move away from synthesizers and began writing for acoustic instruments, “if you take the same arpeggio and play it 32 times, anything about the voicing of the piano or any little foible of your finger that doesn’t work becomes very audible.” It’s precisely in the space between what a machine could do and what a pianist can’t do — achieve mechanistic regularity — that the real beauty of a Glass performance lies.
“And what I’ve come to think is that that’s true about old music as well,” Brubaker explained. “When you think about rubato in Chopin, that is the measure of expressivity there too — the degree to which it deviates from some grid which you don’t necessarily ever hear. But it’s actually that gap between your expectation and what the human hand actually does that makes the piece more or less emotional. Finding some kind of balance between repeating something regularly and actually letting it be different, that’s all the performance is about.”
Listen to an exclusive preview from “Glass Piano”:
Speaking of Glass
The enterprising string orchestra A Far Cry will open its 2015-16 season with Glass’s Third Symphony (Sept. 26-27), and close it with a program that includes his Second String Quartet, “Company” (May 20). Those are two among the season’s eleven programs, in which the repertoire runs the gamut from Jean-Philippe Rameau to John Zorn. The ensemble will host a series of collaborators, including poet Robert Pinsky (Oct. 16), pianist Simone Dinnerstein (April 30-May 1), and the early-music choir Blue Heron (Jan. 29). Of special interest is a Dec. 18 concert featuring the premiere of a new work by singer-songwriter Gabriel Kahane, along with Kahane’s versions of Schubert songs and an arrangement of that composer’s final string quartet.
A Far Cry was recently awarded a three-year grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, which the group says will be put toward “an expansion of [its] New England presence.”