Johann Sebastian Bach is foundational; here in the West, for at least two centuries, Bach’s music has constituted one of the lenses through which we examine the music composed since then. Discussing Bach in 2010, Philip Glass compared Bach to Michaelangelo or Einstein, geniuses who “demonstrate the ultimate potential that human beings are capable of.” Glass added, Bach “articulated the language of music in the most complete and richest and complex form that any single person has ever been able to do.”
As a young composer in his mid-twenties studying music composition with Nadia Boulanger in Paris, Glass noted that Bach’s keyboard music was essentially Boulanger’s “syllabus.” Insights derived from studying Bach’s music, according to Glass, enabled him to take musical sound apart, finding and isolating its most basic component parts, and then committing to his “additive process,” his own version of minimalism: “I reduced all the music that I knew to something that was based on the simplest materials of music that I could think of.”
There has been a long-standing tradition for many artists to present and interpret both Bach’s complex counterpoint and Glass’ minimalism in styles so mathematically precise as to be near-mechanical: this is one particularly extreme version of performance precision. Both Dinnerstein and the eighteen musicians of A Far Cry (who call themselves Criers) reject this interpretation. Dinnerstein “doesn’t agree” with the “motoric, mechanical” approach, in spite of the music’s pulse. As the Miller Theatre’s always invaluable program notes indicated, Dinnerstein has remarked, “There is a pulse for sure, but instead of it being in such small denominations, I think of it as a much larger pulse. Within that there’s a lot of freedom.”
This freedom – an organic, breathed pacing in performance – characterized Dinnerstein’s and the Criers’ performances in both the familiar Bach and Glass pieces and in the new Glass work.
The concert opened with Bach’s third Brandenburg Concerto followed by Glass’ well-known 1995 Symphony No. 3. Both pieces were performed with A Far Cry’s characteristic vigor, freshness and integrity. The Criers have a distinct aesthetic practice: for every piece they play, a “group of principals” is elected to shape, rehearse and oversee the work. Within a single concert of several pieces, several principal-musician groups might lead the various pieces. The result is a variety of perspectives in every concert. Success, however, is not possible without a shared commitment to high standards of technical skill and common expectations about the exact nature of both collaboration and leadership, no matter how distinctive each of the individual artistic personalities of the eighteen members of the group might be.
Organic vitality was the quality common to both the Bach Brandenburg and the Glass Symphony No. 3 performances: the rhythmic rigor of both pieces was always respected, but new ideas as they arose were given room to develop. The Bach’s joy, in particular, was expansive.
The first piece of the second half of the program was Bach’s Keyboard Concerto in G minor, BWV 1058. Joining A Far Cry, Dinnerstein played expressively: piano and strings functioned together as a whole exploration of musical sound.
The final piece on the program was Glass’ new Piano Concerto No. 3. Its world premiere took place in Boston on September 22; this Miller Theatre performance constituted the work’s New York premiere and second performance.
Because the first three pieces of the program had established an intellectual across-time dialogue between Bach and Glass and an examination of Glass’ Bach ‘ancestry,’ the unabashedly Romantic quality of Glass’ new piece came as a surprise: in spite of the presence of familiar Glass rhythmic and harmonic motifs, the concerto contained new cadences and directions. In both piano-strings simultaneities and in the four piano cadenzas, explorations of uncertainty and of distances from longed-for resolutions felt like new territory for Glass. The piece as a whole moved from monumentality through moments of increasing quiet to Dinnerstein’s final poignant movement into silence.
Conceived for Dinnerstein and A Far Cry, Glass’ concerto builds on Dinnerstein’s distinctive emotional voice; the music, however, is not personality-dependent, but can stand on its own as a rich examination of irresolution, of materiality dispersed and released in scattered fragments. Interestingly, because of the program’s presentation of two well-known Bach pieces, the classical roots of Romanticism – the nineteenth century’s as well as Glass’ – were elegantly highlighted. The concert, as a result, had dense intellectual rewards as well as artistic ones.
Audience response to the whole evening was near-deliriously positive; it was a quite appropriate response. This was a wonderful concert, and a splendid beginning to the Miller Theatre 2017-2018 season.
Bach + Glass, with Simone Dinnerstein and A Far Cry (September 28, 2017)
Miller Theatre at Columbia University, 2960 Broadway at 116th Street, in Manhattan
For information, visit http://www.millertheatre.com
Running time: two hours with one intermission