Annenberg Center Celebrates Philip Glass with #GLASSFEST

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The Crossing gave a performance that combined the work of Philip Glass with that of David Byrne.
The Crossing gave a performance that combined the work of Philip Glass with that of David Byrne. (Photo by John C. Hawthorne)

World-renowned pianist Jenny Lin has performed Philip Glass’ piano etudes just about everywhere that people have wanted to hear them: at a museum in Brooklyn, for 30,000 people at an outdoor concert in Brazil and even at a nursing home, by request.

On March 5, she’ll play them at the Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts as part of #GLASSFEST, a monthlong celebration of one of the most celebrated composers in American history.

“He’s a really important artist, and somebody we wanted to celebrate, in a way, celebrate our history with him, but then also really give audiences a chance to explore some iconic pieces of his and then also some lesser-known work,” said Christopher Gruits, artistic and executive director of the Annenberg Center.

Lin is part of a lineup that includes The Philip Glass Ensemble, which will perform the composer’s “Music in Twelve Parts” on Feb. 29; and by Glass himself, who will perform a new experimental work conceived by filmmaker Nikki Appino called “The White Lama: The Improbable Legacy of Theos Bernard” on March 13 and 14, alongside Kevin Joyce and Tenzin Choegyal.

Alas, for #GLASSFEST completists hearing about this for the first time, the first show in the celebration has already happened. On Feb. 21-22, The Crossing, a choir, debuted “Knee Plays,” which combined a performance of Glass’ “Einstein on the Beach” with music from Talking Heads frontman David Byrne.

Glass, the son of Lithuanian Jewish immigrants in Baltimore, has enjoyed one of the most prominent careers a classical composer could have in the latter half of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st. His classical compositions — “Music in Twelve Parts” and “Einstein on the Beach,” among many others — have gained widespread critical acclaim in his decades-long career. But he’s also written numerous film scores, picking up Academy Award nominations for his work on movies like “Kundun” and “The Hours.” He continues to produce music at an exceptionally prolific rate.

He’s performed in Philadelphia many times since the early ’70s, appearing at the Institute of Contemporary Art as early as 1974, according to Gruits.

Lin, based in New York, has loved Glass’ music for decades. It was only in 2014 that she was able to perform alongside him for the first time, joining him for the world premiere of his piano etudes. An etude, Lin explained, is a piece of music composed primarily to present technical challenges for the musician who plays it, as practice. Many are used expressly for that purpose, but others, like some composed by Claude Debussy, Frédéric Chopin and Franz Liszt, are performed as works of art in their own right. Glass’ “Etudes” — all 20 of them, each exceedingly difficult to perform — were composed over a period of almost 20 years.

“I’m always so surprised by how much the audience loves it,” Lin said.

She’s now performed alongside Glass many times, and is a devoted interpreter of his work.
“Some composers provide freedom to the performers, the interpreters, and others don’t,” Lin said, explaining the appeal of playing Glass compositions. “So he belongs to the first group, where he’s so open to everybody’s interpretations of these etudes.”

Andrew Sterman will play “Music in Twelve Parts” with The Phillip Glass Ensemble on Feb. 29. Sterman plays saxophone and piccolo, and occasionally the clarinet. He’s been playing with the ensemble for 28 years, he said, and still finds occasion for new insight into Glass’ work.

“It’s been an incredible journey,” he said.

Sterman recalled a recent conversation with his son, just after a performance in New York. Perhaps the greatest appeal of Glass’ music, his son theorized, was that it simultaneously engages the novice listener and the seasoned classical music expert; one doesn’t need to have an encyclopedic knowledge of Beethoven, Sterman explained, to hear Glass’ music and understand that something special is happening. Though, if you did, you’d find even more to appreciate.

“Music in Twelve Parts,” written between 1971 and 1974, is a long piece, one that takes hours to play. Rather than drag, Sterman said, it creates a sense of camaraderie between the audience and the ensemble.

At this point, he’s been performing it for so long that he often finds himself focusing on the play of others, rather than on his own.

“What interests me now is playing it and listening so carefully to everybody that I’m really not focusing on my own part any more than anybody else’s part, which is a beautiful place to be able to get,” he said. “It’s an incredibly exquisite feeling to be a part of a working organism like that.”

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