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Review: Glass' show anything but minimalistic

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This review of Tuesday night's performance by Philip Glass a the Lied Center comes from Dean Bevan, a retired Baker University English professor who lives in Lawrence. He can be reached at bevan@ku.edu.

A well-filled Lied Center welcomed composer and pianist Philip Glass Tuesday evening, joined by cellist Wendy Sutter and percussionist Mick Rossi. Playing for an hour and three-quarters without intermission, the three played from eight of Glass’ works, including two encores. Glass himself was content to play accompaniment on all but three of the works, with Sutter taking a prominent role in the evening’s offerings.

To clear up some overheard misconceptions: Philip Glass, a trailblazing composer, does not write atonal works but is strikingly melodic and harmonic, with frequent Romantic passages. He has also been called a “minimalist,” yet he objects to the term when applied to most of his music for the past three decades — and few who heard Tuesday’s concert would call these intricate works “minimal.”

The concert began with Glass playing two movements of his 1988 “Metamorphosis,” inspired by the Franz Kafka work of that name. This introduced two of his trademarks: repetitive structures and arpeggiation. But neither term does justice to the grandeur of the first movement or the sweet lyricism of the second — both, one would think, a long way from Gregor Samsa. Glass is at ease as he plays, creating the sense of a conversation with his audience.

Sutter was featured in the next work, “Songs and Poems for Cello,” written for her and premiered in New York in 2007. Sutter played this difficult suite with an intensity and precision appropriate to the dramatic score, with its long resonant lines and frequent rapid register changes.

Glass next played from his “Etudes,” with Rossi on the hand drum, which echoed and complemented the piano, both its repeated left-hand continuo and its excursions into bird call-like figures in the upper register. “Tissues,” from “Naqoyqatsi,” again featured Sutter, accompanied by both piano and percussion. At times Glass reached into the piano to gently pluck bass notes while Rossi struck gong and cymbals. In the second movement, Rossi on the celeste played an impressively rapid unison passage with Sutter, while in the third movement Rossi’s marimba added a pleasing complexity to the sound.

Glass introduced a short composition from a 1987 film, “The Secret Agent,” with Sutter on cello and Rossi on piano. He described it as “actually kind of spectacular,” and truly it was, a nonstop presto frenzy of bowing, with Rossi improvising a piano obbligato.

Last on the regular program were three compositions from Glass’ score for Jean Genet’s “The Screens,” a play criticizing the French war in Algeria. All three musicians joined in “The Orchard,” with an elegiac cello line punctuated by bell-like tolling on piano. Next was “France,” an ironic number that developed a romantic cello/marimba duet, only to end suddenly in mid-phrase. Finally, “The French Lieutenant” offered melancholy harmonies blending cello, marimba and piano.

The evening concluded with two encores: the piano solo “Closing” from “Glassworks,” and “Book of Longing,” once again with an effective contrast between cello and celeste.

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