Muhly and friends dig for Glass treasure at Zankel Hall

Fri Feb 09, 2018 at 2:43 pm
Nico Muhly hosted an evening of Philip Glass's music Thursday night at Zankel Hall.

Nico Muhly hosted an evening of Philip Glass’s music Thursday night at Zankel Hall.

In his teens, composer-performer Nico Muhly worked as an archivist for Philip Glass, trying to bring some order to the prolific composer’s manuscripts and jottings. By his own account, he was terrible at it. The hidden gems he kept finding made his imagination roam when he should have been sorting and cataloguing.

That experience may or may not have done much to get Glass’s papers organized, but it did lead, almost twenty years later, to “Nico Muhly and Friends Investigate the Glass Archive,” a delightful program of Glass discoveries (along with some more familiar selections) Thursday night in Carnegie Hall’s Zankel Hall.

Inspired by the example of the Philip Glass Ensemble, the collective of the composer’s close friends and colleagues that introduced many of his works, Muhly mined his own frequent-contacts list for trusted collaborators to produce his Glass tribute.

The resulting group—soprano, violin, viola, flute, two keyboardists and a percussionist, had a flexible but distinct sound of its own. Since tone color is such a significant factor in Glass’s music, Muhly’s arrangements (commissioned by Carnegie Hall) certainly qualified as re-imaginings of the originals, worthy of their “world premiere” billing.

The concert opened, however, with a tribute to the Philip Glass Ensemble that sounded a lot like the real thing, a blast of vocal sound and churning arpeggios in “Lady Day,” from Glass’s 1975 film score North Star. In the amplified environment, the long, pure-toned notes of singers Estelí Gomez and Caroline Shaw—one-quarter of the eight-voice ensemble A Roomful of Teeth, by the way—rose to a banshee wail.

After welcoming remarks from Muhly, two more selections from North Star revealed the diversity of expression in that work. In the title track “Etoile Polaire,” the two singers solemnly intoned a “Three Blind Mice” motive to a gently rocking accompaniment, later elaborated with shifting meters and a floor-shaking electronic bass line.

In the lively instrumental “Are Yours What? (For Marianne Moore),” singer Shaw picked up her violin to join violist Nadia Sirota, flutist Alex Sopp, percussionist Chris Thompson, pianist Lisa Kaplan, and Muhly on keyboards in a performance distinguished by rhythmic vitality and Sirota’s beefy viola tone despite the unwavering tempo.

In 1997, Glass and his frequent stage collaborator Robert Wilson created an animation opera, Monsters of Grace, with texts by the 13th-century Sufi poet Rumi, that had problems in production and lives on today mainly as a soundtrack album. Thursday night Muhly and Co. premiered the younger composer’s take on three hauntingly beautiful excerpts.

“Like This” set a famous Rumi poem most ingratiatingly for singers Gomez and Shaw; it felt as though Schubert’s mill-wheels were rumbling in the low, Glassian arpeggios. Another Schubertian touch, the interplay of major and minor harmonies, characterized the lullaby-like “Don’t Go Back to Sleep.” Despite its title, the instrumental “Boy on Fire” grew darker still, its ever-changing patterns for viola descending softly into a world of deep bass notes. 

Two longer items added some needed heft to the program. The first, an excerpt from the Rome Section of the Glass/Wilson opera the CIVIL warS (1984), featured composer-performer Laurie Anderson speaking the enigmatic text with her inimitably casual-sounding yet charged delivery. As the words grew more emotion-laden and the ensemble surged to match, Anderson never blew her trademark cool.

The evening’s peak of excitement came in a selection from Another Look at Harmony, Part IV, originally for chorus and organ, a quarter-hour of steady crescendo and metric accelerando (that is, using ever-shorter note values without varying the underlying pulse). The audience applauded wildly at the piece’s sudden, fortissimo close.

The group’s extraordinary combination of focus, ease, and precision recalled the Philip Glass Ensemble at its best. Muhly, however, reminded the audience that that group could sustain a single performance for three hours, and, at 16 minutes, “we’re just the junior varsity.”

The program closed with what Muhly called “two endings.”  The first, from the 1985 film Mishima, was a quiet scene of low rocking strings and alto flute, with Gomez’s amplified vocalise sounding uncannily like a French horn.

The closing pages of Glass’s 1979 opera Satyagraha wove a meditative atmosphere with soft flute arpeggios over long string notes, gradually adding harp-like piano sounds, wordless soprano, and marimba to make a bewitching blend of soft and tinkling timbres. The simple four-chord harmony also glinted with gently dissonant notes, as the piece floated down to a pianissimo close amid throbbing strings.

At the end, the audience stood and applauded a true ensemble effort, with star turns for no one (not even the celebrity guest Anderson) but with each player adding a distinct thread to the sound tapestry. The true star of the evening, composer Philip Glass, then joined the group onstage and modestly acknowledged a roar of applause.

The Philip Glass Ensemble will perform Glass’s Music with Changing Parts 8 p.m. February 16 in Carnegie Hall.; 212-247-7800.

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