“A Celebration of Philip Glass” was performed at the Lied Center for Performing Arts at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln(UN-L) on April 17, 2018. Paul Barnes, Professor of Music at the Glenn Korff School of Music, is both a professional colleague and close friend of the great American composer Mr. Glass. The program was built around a world premiere of the composer’s Piano Quintet was well as his Second Piano Concerto, which also had been premiered at the Lied, with Barnes and the Omaha Symphony in 2004.
The program began with the Cappella Romana under the directorship of Alexander Lingas. These eight male voices specialize in the musical traditions of the Christian East and West and at this concert sang four pieces from the Greek Orthodox tradition. The amplified voices were magnificent in this repertory, which, itself, was the inspiration for the Glass Quintet. Barnes, a devout Orthodox Christian, was the linkage between the performance of Capella Romana and the Glass composition. The sacred music is rapturous, repetitive, hypnotic, and mystical, like much of Glass’ musical output.
The second work was Glass’ 2010-unpublished “Pendulum for Violin and Piano,” written to celebrate the 90th anniversary of the American Civil Liberties Union. Barnes was on piano and Hyeyung Yoon on violin. There is no doubt that this is a work by Glass with its simple harmonic material, note-spinning, and nice melodies. Likely he could write such a composition with his eyes closed. Barnes is a great pianist; he does not engage in exaggerated physicality while playing and he is totally in control of the piano’s sound. If anyone should play music by Glass, it should be Barnes. But overall this was not a grand performance. The sound was thin and Yoon made more than her share of technical errors, including issues with intonation. But there will be more discussion later about the sound.
Next was the Piano Quintet “Annunciation,” which was funded, in part by the Hixson-Lied College of Fine and Performing Arts at UN-L. The composition grew out of Barnes’ role as head chanter of Annunciation Greek Orthodox Church in Lincoln. After hearing Barnes sing the Byzantine communion hymn of the Annunciation, Glass agreed to compose his first piano quintet based on the melody of the hymn. Here is a brief description of the quintet based on Barnes’ program notes:
“Part One opens with an ethereal chromatic chord progression leading to the first entrance of the chant stated by the piano and later developed by other members of the ensemble. In Part Two is a poignant meditation in which Glass connects the transcendental ethos of the original chant with his own spacious approach to musical time. The work ends with an increasingly energetic and ecstatic coda based on the opening chant transformed into scale passages that ascend and dissipate into a pianissimo chromatic flourish evocative of incense rising.” (https://musicsprings.wordpress.com/2018/03/22/from-chiara-string-quartet-world-premiere-of-philip-glass-piano-quintet-annunciation/)
The first section is incredibly beautiful and contains exquisite melodies. When there was a pause in the undulating underlying structure, the music could almost have been mistaken for Schubert or Brahms at their most melodious. In fact, if the 80-year old Glass would try composing without the repetitive figures, he might be more appreciated as a composer of wonderful melodies. Nevertheless, the Quintet played by the Chiara String quartet, with Barnes on piano, is a strong and worthy piece. The Chiara is artist-in-residence at the Hixson-Lied College.
Following the intermission, the University Singers sang “Father Death Blues” from Glass’ 1990 tribute to Alan Ginsberg’s “Hydrogen Jukebox.” It is fairly unpleasant music.
Next was a performance of the Piano Concerto No. 2 “After and Lewis and Clark.” The performers were Barnes at the piano and the UN-L Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Tyler White. The second movement is of note because it includes long passes for the Native American flute, performed here by Ron Warren. This piano concerto is not one of Glass’s most compelling works. The flute part seems kind of a gimmicky and in this performance, the flute was amplified and its sound was not well-integrated with the orchestra. The delicacy of the instrument was also diminished by the amplification. While Barnes’ playing was immaculate, the percussion seemed a bit late throughout the work. It was if they could not hear the rest of the orchestra.
After darting from my seat to exit, Barnes began playing an encore. I was standing at the rear of the auditorium (Row X) and suddenly the piano sounded clear, convincing, and powerful. It began to dawn that the sound of the Lied Center has a few dead spots (I sat in row T) that make the sound thin and distant. This may account for why the flute in the piano concerto sounded so loud against the rather slender sounding orchestra. This may also explain the somewhat masked sound of the violin in the “Pendulum.” I have generally found the Lied to have nice acoustics, but for this program, it was a bit of a negative.
This was an intriguing program that attracted a large audience. Congratulations to Mr. Glass on his music and to Paul Barnes for his magnificent piano playing.