Cellist Sutter digs deep with Glass’s complete “Songs and Poems”

Wed Jun 08, 2022 at 12:32 pm
Wendy Sutter performed Philip Glass’s Songs and Poems Tuesday night at the crypt of the Church of the Intercession.

Tuesday night’s concert in the crypt under the Church of the Intercession was a long time coming. It was the first Crypt Session concert, as presenter Andrew Ousley pointed out, in two-and-a-half years, with the series interrupted by the pandemic. And it was the first time that cellist Wendy Sutter has played both books of Philip Glass’s Songs and Poems in public.

That last was notable in the sense of how life interferes with the best-laid plans. Glass dedicated these pieces to Sutter, who had encouraged the composer to create what was his first solo string composition, and to specifically use elements of Baroque style. 

But the personal relationship between the two came to an end. Though Sutter was the dedicatee and contracted to play the second book, Glass handed the music over, under an alternate title, to cellist Matt Haimovitz to perform and record. It has taken a dozen years for Sutter to present the second book in front of an audience (she recorded the first book in 2008). 

On Tuesday night, all the delays paid off. This was a wonderful concert that completely captured the listener, the kind of experience where the musician makes it clear how fine the music is while also showing the depths of their own artistry.

This was also an ideal meeting of musician and composer. Others might concentrate on just how one note leads to another. Sutter was full of passionate ideas, playing the music to get at something, even if that was merely to put her stamp on something made for her. There was a palpable sense of an internal narrative, even if the details were unknown. Sutter combined several songs in each book into continuous groups, and unlike the movement definitions in a Bach solo suit, this was a single journey from one place to another, though shifting landscapes. As with  life, there was no real return home, but a series of deep experiences that, Tuesday night, ended in sublime darkness.

Sutter, in a word, was magnificent. Her rich, grainy sound was amplified by the acoustic of the crypt to where her instrument had great physical presence. This mattered because while the Songs and Poems look inward, the right musician will use it to find meaning, bring that out and impress it on the listener. Sutter was constantly compelling, and one felt her dig into the music deeper with each note, reflecting the inner expanses she uncovered through the controlled passion of her playing.

The immediate sonic pleasure of Glass’s music is such that it can distract from its expressive complexity. The harmonic rhythms, voice leading, and repetitions are pleasing in themselves. And in a very meditative sense, they can open up sensations beyond words. That takes the right balance of technique and understanding,  which proved Sutter’s forte.

The emotional quality was there, filling the whole space, and there was a scintillating intellectual fascination that came out of her playing as well. Glass’s arpeggios and counterpoint are close to the Baroque already, so one would think it only a small challenge for him to craft music in that style. 

But Sutter—both on recording and live Tuesday—reinforced the romantic side of Glass, that so much of his instrumental music has a singing quality to it, and that his modernism draws more from late Mozart, Schubert, and Bruckner perhaps more than any other figures. His style is of our time while his sensibilities and values are about revealing the heart through the ancient virtues of balance, proportion, and contemplation.

Wendy Sutter plays Philip Glass’ Songs and Poems 8 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday in the crypt at the Church of the Intercession deathofclassical.com

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