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Glass + Schubert

Affinities and Alliances: Simone Dinnerstein Performs Glass + Schubert

By happy coincidence, this month ends with a double birthday: January 31 is the day on which Philip Glass and Franz Schubert were born. And while, chronologically speaking, 140 years separate the two composers, the affinities between them are striking. Glass grew up surrounded by classical music in heavy rotation in his father’s record store in Baltimore and found himself drawn to Schubert in particular.

“There’s a connection in terms of both composers’s ideas of form and the development of material,” says Simone Dinnerstein. “The way Glass and Schubert treat harmony is similar, which is to treat it melodically, changing only one note in a repeated chord. They both use dance rhythms quite a lot. And both write so much for the voice — Schubert in the form of lieder and Glass as a prolific opera composer. Their sensitivity to the voice is something that permeates their instrumental writing as well.”


Seven Plus Five

Dinnerstein became so struck by the various echoes between their musical approaches that she realized she could create a compelling program interweaving pieces by Glass and Schubert. In contrast to the conventional recital, with its well-behaved segmentation into different eras and pre-packaged sequence of expectations, the pianist hopes to inspire a different kind of experience from her audience. “Classical programs are slightly odd in that they are so different from going to see a concert in any other genre. When you go to a concert of jazz or folk music, you aren’t given all of this information ahead of time. You have no idea exactly what they are going to play.”

With that “non-classical” experience of live performance in mind, Dinnerstein decided to organize her “Glass + Schubert” program into a pair of sections resembling seamless suites (“Seven Pieces” and “Five Pieces”), mixing music by the two without even listing the names of the composers, let alone such standard details as keys, opus numbers, or dates. “I really want this concert to be a personal experience that each listener can go through without pre-conceptions of what they will hear,” she explains.

One concern frequently voiced by those who enjoy other types of music but feel uneasy with “classical” music (whether canonical or contemporary) is the fear that they do not “know enough,” that they lack the background knowledge assumed to be a prerequisite for even listening to, say, a Schubert sonata. With her suite-like presentation, Dinnerstein upends those assumptions and invites spontaneous experiences — of the musical personalties of Glass and Schubert, but also in relation to each other. In the process, these two composers will be heard to mutually illuminate the experience. (Spoiler alert: in keeping with that spontaneity, you may wish to refrain from reading what follows until after the performance, to compare later with your in-the-moment concert experience.)


Piano Glass

The music of Philip Glass permeates our culture, but because he is such a prolific composer for films, most people tend to hear his writing for orchestra or some smaller instrumental ensemble more than anything else. Glass’s writing for solo piano, according to Dinnerstein, differs from his orchestral writing in its lyricism, intimacy, and expressiveness. “That’s not to say his orchestral music does not have those qualities, but I find there is more of a sense of narrative to it.”

Despite studying the flute and violin while growing up, Glass had and continues to have an especially close connection to the piano. He composes at the keyboard and has long enjoyed giving solo recitals (at the piano or organ) — presenting a  stripped-down alter ego to the “plugged-in” persona of the Philip Glass Ensemble, with its vortexes of amplified instruments and synthesizers.

In 1989 Glass released the landmark Solo Piano album, which includes his Metamophosis suite of piano pieces. The title and some of the pieces in the suite derive from his incidental music for a staged version of Franz Kafka’s short story The Metamorphosis — a writer of particular importance to Glass, who based his chamber opera In the Penal Colony (2000) on another work by Kafka. Metamorphosis One and Two were adapted from Glass’s score for the 1988 Errol Morris film The Thin Blue Line about a man wrongfully sentenced to death for the murder of a police officer.

As Glass expanded his solo touring, he needed more solo piano repertoire to play. Over a nearly two-decade span, between 1994 and 2012, he wrote two volumes of piano etudes, evoking a genre of pieces that rank among the gems in the catalogues of such predecessors as Chopin and Debussy. On the surface, an etude (“study”) is a piece intended to improve piano skills, usually by focusing on a particular technical challenge, but these are also among the most poetically refined works by those composers.

Of his own Études, Philip Glass has said: “I finished the first ten and didn’t write any piano music for years. When I began to write piano music again, it seemed almost as if the second ten had been conceived before. Some of them I wrote very quickly; the last four I wrote in about three weeks. The first ten really have a pedagogical aspect to them for my own development. The second set have nothing or very little to do with that. I began working in the world of ideas … I did not put restrictions on the technique.”


Impromptu but Transcendental

The piano was also Franz Schubert’s primary instrument, though he was not of the same caliber as Mozart or Beethoven, who, at various points in their careers, supported themselves as virtuoso keyboard performers. But the informal “Schubertiades” — gatherings to make music together and present his latest compositions — that Schubert and his circle of friends performed in domestic settings evoke a kind of parallel to the early days of the Philip Glass Ensemble, shut out from the official venues of the classical music world but nevertheless attracting audiences to performances at downtown lofts and art galleries.

The growth of a middle-class market for amateur pianists laid the ground for the emergence of small-scale, miniature forms during Schubert’s life. These would be cultivated into an especially prized form of expression by the Romantics, and Schubert anticipates something of that aesthetic in such pieces as his Impromptus. There are two sets of these (each containing four pieces), both composed in 1827, the year before Schubert died at age 31.

The term “impromptu” is misleading, to the extent that it suggests an off-the-cuff improvisation or free fantasy. It was imposed by Schubert’s publisher, who even rejected the second set as unmarketable because they did not conform to his desire for lightweight, modestly demanding miniatures. While Schubert did write lighter fare such as dances and atmospheric pieces, he channeled some of his most challenging, refined thoughts into the Impromptus.

The first impromptu we hear (in C minor) takes the form of a solemn, stalking march, with an indecisive wavering between major and minor in the coda. No. 2 takes flight with serenely perpetual-motion triplets in the right hand, only to lead to a minor-key outburst in the middle section that resonates in the return to the opening material. Impromptu No. 3 resembles a nocturne and also evokes the lyricism of Schubert’s lieder. Tonal ambiguity comes to the fore in No. 4.

In terms of their Glassian correspondences, Dinnerstein points out that she carefully chose the pieces from Metamorphosis and the Études that seemed to her “the most Schubertian.” Étude 6 (subtitled “Patetico”) echoes the formal basic formal design of Impromptu 2, for example, while the rhythmic design of Metamorphosis One reminded her of Schubert’s language.

Some of Schubert’s most miraculous compositions date from his final months, in 1828 — including his final three piano sonatas. These are cast on a large, ambitious scale, and are believed by some musicologists and performers to even form an interconnected trilogy, rife with cross-references. There is also an aura of mythology surrounding these sonatas as “late works” that somehow encode a foreboding of the composer’s impending death. Yet, as with Mozart’s last works, the term “late” sounds very odd indeed for a composer only in his thirties, while knowing the tragic circumstances of premature death can influence how we listen to this music.

Dinnerstein says she prefers not to think in such categories but to build up her interpretation from the music itself, rather the information we have  surrounding its composition. “To me the music of the final Sonata in B-flat major itself is clearly transcendental and expresses the passage through some kind of darkness.” Even the beginning “has so much wistfulness and nostalgia — one of those pieces that is sad in a major key.” A characteristic detail of Schubert’s process comes toward the end of the first full statement of the theme — a grumbling, deep in the bass, which comes as an ominous surprise. It’s a gesture that could almost seem “influenced” by Philip Glass.

Dinnerstein points out a striking feature many listeners notice when first encountering this last sonata of Schubert: the profundity of the first two movements, so epic in expanse, gives way to a very different character in the third and fourth — a frothy Scherzo and a finale that commences with a remarkably indirect gesture. “It’s hard to know what to make of them after all that has come before.”

She recalls how touched she was when she played this music to a group of high school students who normally had little contact with classical music. “One girl said that the last movement sounds like Schubert is going over everything that happened already — like going back over his life, a summary of the lights and darks.”


—Notes by Thomas May