- - Monday, October 3, 2011

Philip Glass is one of the most famous names in modern music, a composer whose minimalist, hypnotically repetitive scores have attracted huge audiences over the past four decades - and divided them into warring camps.

On one side are the devotees (it’s not too strong a word) who find Mr. Glass‘ undulating patterns, simple triads and endlessly repeated arpeggios to be music of subtle but transcendent beauty. On the other side is an equally passionate crowd that scorns him as a tedious thumb-twiddler, churning out simplistic mush for slow thinkers. And as Mr. Glass approaches his 75th birthday - still astonishingly prolific - the debate over his importance as a composer continues to rage.

More fuel was thrown on the fire on Sunday, when Mr. Glass himself appeared in town for a rare recital at the Phillips Collection, performing his early works for piano in the museum’s Music Room.

And it was, in every way, an extraordinary event. To hear any composer play his or her own works - especially in such an intimate setting - offers the prospect of a direct insight into their music, a chance to hear it as they intended it to sound, without the filter of an outside interpreter.

But the results can sometimes be shocking.

Mr. Glass opened with six of his Piano Etudes, a collection that he began writing in 1994 to develop, as he told the audience, his own skills at the piano. The choice was almost embarrassing in its irony, though, for it quickly became clear that Mr. Glass does not play the piano well. In fact, he plays it badly - very badly. The Etudes were a muddle of missed notes, incoherent phrasing and clumsy fingering, banged out with great enthusiasm but only the faintest attention to detail. Mr. Glass is not, of course, a concert pianist and shouldn’t be judged as one; nevertheless, the not-ready-for-prime-time playing didn’t do his music any favors.

But what was perhaps most surprising was his interpretive approach. Mr. Glass‘ music - from iconic, large scale works such as the opera “Einstein on the Beach” and the film score for “Koyaanisqatsi,” to his smaller pieces for solo instruments - all tend to get their power from the gradual, deliberate building of large patterns from small motives. They grow with a kind of organic inexorability (or, as critics would have it, predictable dullness), and have the most impact when performed with a kind of cool, precise detachment that allows the music to unfold as almost a natural phenomenon. It’s music that few would ever think to call Romantic; the idea seems absurd.

And yet, that was how Mr. Glass played it. From the opening Etudes he went on to the engaging “Mad Rush” from 1979 and four movements from his “Metamorphosis” series of 1988, and it was clear that the composer saw these as intensely personal works, bursting with passion and human drama. He sturmed-and-dranged his way through them as if channeling Schubert, painting with a broad brush and a damn-the-details exuberance. The result - to these ears, anyway - was a mess. But it was a happy, crazy, even joyful mess, full of heart if not a lot of sense, and Mr. Glass‘ affection for his own music was contagious. Certainly one of the more unusual recitals of the year, and an intriguing start to the Phillips Collection’s 71st season of Sunday concerts.

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