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Opening Night: Bach + Glass

Simone Dinnerstein is in an ideal position to explore the bridge connecting Johann Sebastian Bach and Philip Glass. In addition to this evening ’s opening concert, she will continue her series of reflections on both composers in two programs later this season at Miller Theatre. It was with her now- landmark interpretation of the Goldberg Variations, in which she contributed a fresh perspective on a very weighty tradition, that Dinnerstein achieved her breakthrough early in the millennium.

Glass himself became intrigued both by Dinnerstein’s live performances of Bach and by an insightful program she developed that explored parallels between his own music and that of another artistic soulmate, Franz Schubert (which the pianist brings to Miller Theatre in January). When he received the 11th Glenn Gould Prize last November in Ottawa, Dinnerstein was among the artists enlisted to play in the celebration concert.

Overall, she says, “there’s a trend to play both Bach and Glass in a motoric, mechanical away, with a strong pulse. With both of these composers, I don’t agree with that interpretation. There is a pulse for sure, but instead of it being in such small denominations, I think of a much larger pulse. Within that there’s a lot of freedom.” This evening, Dinnerstein and A Far Cry present the New York premiere of the latest of Glass’s creations, his Piano Concerto No. 3.

Figures like Einstein, Gandhi, and Akhnaten impress Philip Glass because they transformed society through their ideas, not “through the force of arms.” But it tends to be the warriors and politicians who get the official memorials by effecting change through violence or coercion. (Or, worse, as the new awareness of Confederate monuments soberly reminded us over the summer, who are even memorialized for using force to try to thwart the transformation of society.)

“I began to imagine: what if we had a ‘Jackson Pollock Expressway’ or an ‘Igor Stravinsky Airport’ instead?” the composer recalls. “We should be honoring the people who really have changed the world and who have accomplished that not by having a new war (which isn’t changing very much).”

The result was the revolutionary approach to opera that Glass accomplished in his first three stage works, his so-called “portrait operas.” But another transformative figure has been lurking in the background all along as a point of reference, a kind of continual counterpoint — in Glass’s operas and instrumental works alike — even if not explicitly celebrated: Johann Sebastian Bach.

In a scene in Michael Lawrence’s 2010 documentary Bach & Friends, Glass classed the German composer with “people like Michelangelo or Einstein ... who have tremendous artistic or scientific vision” and who continue to inspire because they demonstrate the ultimate potential that “human beings are capable of [realizing].” In the case of Bach, that means nothing less than that he “articulated the language of music in the most complete and richest and complex form that any single person has ever been able to do.” 

Whenever Glass talks about his early formation as a musical thinker, the influence of Bach soon comes up. He went to Paris in his mid-20s to study with Nadia Boulanger, and her methods made Bach’s keyboard music his “syllabus.” One of the fascinating paradoxes that has been reaffirmed during this anniversary year of retrospectives on Glass’s legacy at 80 is that such profound originality could be spurred by a fresh perspective on tradition — rather than on its wholesale rejection.

“Boulanger basically rewired my brain,” says Glass, referring not only to her weekly assignments in traditional counterpoint — whose aftereffects can still be traced in both of the Glass works we hear on this program — but to a process of intense discipline and rigor that takes nothing for granted and that he has never abandoned. 

From Boulanger, Glass learned that “you don’t write carelessly, and you don’t write notes that don’t belong.” His epiphanies in the “Boulangerie” emboldened Glass to take everything he had learned apart and start again from the basics, arriving, in a kind of musical version of Cartesian logic, at his breakthrough with Minimalism (the composer’s own preferred term is “additive process”): “I reduced all the music that I knew to something that was based on the simplest materials of music that I could think of.” 

 

Symphony No. 3
Phlip Glass (b. 1937)
Composed in 1995. 

“I was looking for a way of radicalizing the music again, and sometimes that can mean doing something that people already know,” writes Glass in his recent memoir, Words Without Music. In the late 1980s he began applying his unique language to such traditional instrumental genres as the concerto and symphony. 

Glass was already in his 50s when he wrote his Symphony No. 1 (“Low”) in 1992. Three more symphonies followed within the next few years. For the Symphony No. 3 from 1995, Glass chose a four-movement pattern and scored for a string orchestra of only nineteen players — all of which underscores the piece’s neoclassical leanings. 

The brief first movement serves as a prelude to the second and third movements, which the composer describes as “the main body of the symphony.” Movements two and three also exploit maximal contrast: energized shifting rhythmic patterns in the second versus an elegiac mood that reigns in the third. The second movement ranges from textures in which all the strings play in unison to many-voiced harmonies. 

In the slow third movement, the emotional core of the Third Symphony, Glass revives an age-old technique that is often associated with Bach and other Baroque composers: the chaconne, which uses repetition to allow musical and emotional weight to accrue. Like the chord sequence of a pop song, the underlying idea is spelled out as a bass line by the cellos and violas and then continually repeated. But with each repetition, Glass adds additional string voices to the mix, giving the violinists a haunting melody that is eventually drowned by the collective sonority, as all of the strings are interwoven into the fabric. 

The brief fourth movement takes up the theme introduced enigmatically at the end of the second movement (a simple rising-scale idea using plucked strings) and, per Glass, “re-integrates” the complicated rhythmic patterns from that movement. 

 

Keyboard Concerto in G minor, BWV 1058
Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750)
Composed in 1735-1740. 

In a sequence of amplified instrumental works (with, at times, wordless voice) for his itinerant Philip Glass ensemble, the composer evolved his language of broken chords, insistently repetitive accompanying figures, and harmonic sequences that recur across large time scales. The ambition of abstract epics like Music in Twelve Parts (1971-74) shares with Bach a passion for covering a wide range of possibilities and combinations. In this it shares the encyclopedic completeness we find in the Well-Tempered Clavier, in which Bach covers all major and minor keys of the chromatic scale. 

A similar drive lies behind Bach’s various collections (often showing a fondness for anthologies of six examples, as with the Cello Suites and Brandenburg Concertos). His collection of keyboard concertos are another example. Bach’s concertos in general (whether for solo instruments or various combinations of soloists, as in the Brandenburgs) synthesize musical practice of his era in Italy with Northern complexity (the use of many simultaneous voices, i.e., counterpoint). And the keyboard concertos in particular foreshadow the emergence of the modern solo piano concerto, though Bach in these cases was writing the solo part primarily for harpsichord instruments — a role which he, the most celebrated organist of his era, possibly played himself when these concertos were introduced at the Collegium Musicum during his Leipzig years. The Collegium Musicum was a civic institution founded by Bach’s predecessor in Leipzig, Georg Philipp Telemann, and Bach started directing it in 1729. It involved an ensemble of local musicians (many of them university students) who gathered weekly for performances at Zimmermann’s Coffee House in Leipzig. While Bach’s main duties as the city’s music director were to organize music for the churches, these gatherings gave him an outlet to try out secular compositions. 

It was in this period that Bach copied out a set of harpsichord concertos into one manuscript (BWV 1052-1058). The first six were intended to form a self-standing collection; the seventh (along with a brief sketch for an eighth concerto) may have been part of a second collection that was never completed. In any case, this seventh concerto (BWV 1058), which we hear on our program, is a revision of an earlier work, the Violin Concerto in A minor BWV 1040. It has been “backtracked” to an earlier concerto, though one that was written for a solo violin rather than keyboard (the source has not survived). 

Bach retooled the keyboard version of this concerto not only so that it is in a different key (G minor), but also to give the soloist a larger role in the proceedings. Much of his re-scoring of the orchestral parts involves solving the problem of the harpsichord’s sonic balance with the ensemble. 

BWV 1058 is a good example of the model Bach adapted from Vivaldi, whose ingenious experiments with the three- movement structure for a concerto inspired his German contemporary in a number of other works as well. These Italian models were also exemplars of a kind of concerto writing style that Bach continued to develop. Known as “ritornello form,” this involves another use of repetition over a relatively large time scale (the Italian word is simply the diminutive of “return”). A ritornello is usually presented as the main thematic material that sets the music in motion and is played by the complete ensemble. The soloist will offer counterarguments and venture off in directions of her own, but the ritornello remains an insistent presence that periodically comes back, though potentially chopped and diced into fragments or, alternatively, elongated even further. 

The Andante, a marvelous instance of Bach’s affecting lyricism, uses still another repetition strategy: a hypnotic ostinato (that insistently recurring figure which lies beneath the melody). To close the Concerto, Bach gives us a finale that’s an invitation to the dance, using a lively gigue pulse but complicating the texture with finely crafted Northern-style counterpoint. 

 

Brandenburg Concerto No. 3 in G major, BWV 1048
Johann Sebastian Bach
Composed in 1721. 

In neat symmetry to Glass’s all-string Symphony No. 3, the Brandenburg Concerto No. 3 is a string-based concerto from the most famous collection of concertos, which Bach wrote during the pre-Leipzig part of his career — during his tenure at the court of Köthen (1717-23). This position gave the composer incentive and time to write purely instrumental works, since his aristocratic patron was a Calvinist who had little use for musical accompaniment to church services (regarded as too distracting from worship) but who enjoyed music as entertainment. 

Eventually, though, this arrangement came under threat from the patron’s new wife (who had no use for music in any context), and Bach began looking elsewhere for a post. The Brandenburg Concertos were gathered in 1721 as a collection that Bach may well have intended to use to impress a potential new employer in Berlin. Each of these six concerto masterpieces calls for a different instrumental combination and palette. 

Concerto No. 3 in G major is the shortest of the bunch and inhabits its own sound world. Bach’s score calls for violins, violas, and cellos (three of each, the numerical significance of which Bach associated with the Christian Trinity: 3 X 3 = 9), along with keyboard accompaniment (to underpin the harmonic structure). The overall style of writing is more “orchestral” than what we tend to think of as concerto- like. Unusually, the score for the second movement comprises a single pair of chords. This has been interpreted to indicate that a violinist or perhaps the keyboard continuo player should improvise a cadenza; another option is to substitute a different slow movement from Bach. 

 

Piano Concerto No. 3 
Philip Glass
Composed in 2017. This is the New York Premiere. 

Glass composed the Piano Concerto No. 3 (which had its world premiere just six days ago in Boston) for Simone Dinnerstein and A Far Cry — and specifically for this program combination with music by Bach. Dinnerstein explains that she wanted Glass to write a concerto for piano and string orchestra, given the relative paucity of concertos for that format in the standard repertoire. 

“It’s a nice combination and makes for a more intimate type of concerto,” she said in an interview soon after she had played through the completed score at the composer’s New York home (on the same Baldwin piano on which he had just composed the new concerto). “[Glass] told me that he was thinking of the way I play when he wrote it, and the piece feels very natural to me.” 

“Bach has influenced so many composers, and Philip Glass is no exception to that.” Dinnerstein points in particular to structures based on repetition and to the mastery of architectural thinking she believes is common ground. “An interesting aspect of Bach’s music is his use of repeats,” she says. Consider, for example, the critical role of the recurring ritornello in Bach’s concertos. “Sometimes we think of repeats as being just optional. [Like Bach], Glass thinks of them very structurally in his music, because of the balance. It was interesting to witness the changes he made while I was playing the concerto back for him. He thinks a lot about the pacing and architecture.” 

The Concerto No. 3 — dedicated to Simone Dinnerstein — is cast in three movements, but the first and second are played together without pause. The result, according to Dinnerstein, is that “we relate to them almost as if they are one movement and they are intrinsically connected, even though the second movement does have a different feeling.” The slower third movement is marked “To Arvo Pärt” — a friend of Glass — and its music conveys something of the sense of suspended time Glass learned from him, Dinnerstein says. Pärt, an Estonian contemporary of Glass, is known for his own brand of Minimalist gestures, often combined with works of a spiritual nature. But the Piano Concerto “also sounds very much like Glass,” adds Dinnerstein. 

Overall, the new work differs from many other concertos “in that it is very much driven by the piano.” Entire sections — such as the opening passage — are for solo piano. Others feature intimate dialogue between piano and cello, or doubling of the piano with pizzicato strings.

The Concerto’s premiere with A Far Cry had not yet occurred when Dinnerstein pointed out some of the features to look for. She noted that “the rapport with ensemble is such that I imagine the sound of the strings will almost emanate from the piano. There is counterpoint in sections between the strings and the piano, but much of the time it seems that the strings are just balancing out the voices in the piano — almost like an extension of the piano itself.” 

—Notes by Thomas May