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Minimal to the max

Fri., March 26, 2010

World-renowned composer Philip Glass will perform Wednesday at The Fox

Philip Glass’ music first began to be heard in New York in the 1960s and was dismissed by the musical establishment as the work of a technically deficient, hippie interloper. He was written off as a minimalist in the maximal world of complex music by such modern composers as Milton Babbitt and Elliott Carter. Now Glass is recognized as one of the most influential composers in the world. His work has been performed, and applauded, in opera houses such as the Metropolitan and concert halls like the Amsterdam Concertgebouw, and as part of numerous theater, dance and film productions. Glass will play a solo piano recital Wednesday at the Martin Woldson Theater at The Fox in his first Spokane appearance.

The program will include his etudes along with transcriptions of some of his organ music and arrangments of sections from his operas “Einstein on the Beach” and “Satyagraha.”

The late Bruce Ferden, music director of the Spokane Symphony from 1985 to 1991, conducted the premiere of “Satyagraha” in Rotterdam in 1980 and was a lifelong advocate of Glass’ music.

Glass, who turned 73 in January, grew up in Baltimore. His father owned a record store, and the composer recalls his record collection consisting of items that didn’t sell – things like the late Beethoven string quartets, Schubert’s piano trios and “modern” classical music.

He studied flute and violin before he was 10. At age 15, he went to the University of Chicago to study mathematics and philosophy and began playing the piano.

Later, as music took a larger place in his life, Glass studied composition at the Juilliard School in New York, where his teachers included Vincent Persichetti and William Bergsma (who later headed the University of Washington’s School of Music).

After studying with Darius Milhaud at the Aspen Summer Music School, Glass decided his American training had not been rigorous enough. In 1964 he was awarded a Fulbright Scholarship to study in Paris with the notoriously rigorous Nadia Boulanger.

“Living in Paris had a decisive effect on my life in two ways,” Glass wrote in a biographical essay. “One I had planned for. The other was completely unexpected.”

The first was training under Boulanger’s eagle eye.

“Her pedagogy was thorough and relentless,” Glass wrote. “When I left Paris in 1966, I had remade my technique and had learned to hear in a way that would have been unimaginable to me only a few years before.”

The second, unexpected event was working with the great Indian sitar player Ravi Shankar, transcribing Shankar’s playing into Western notation for the French musicians working on the film score for Conrad Rook’s “Chappaqua.”

“My new skills acquired from the Boulanger studies and the vistas that my first contact with Indian music opened up,” Glass wrote, “were the beginnings of my new musical language.”

That new approach used what he describes as “a highly reductive, repetitive style that made most of the musicians who encountered it very angry … most other musicians thought I was just crazy. I realized that if my new music was to be played, I would have to play it myself.”

He returned to New York in 1967 and with a handful of like-minded musicians formed the Philip Glass Ensemble. The group performed at first mainly in galleries and museums, where Glass collaborated with artists such as Richard Serra and Chuck Close.

A turning point came with a series of “portrait operas” he wrote beginning with “Einstein on the Beach” in 1976 and continuing with “Satyagraha” (about Mahatma Gandhi, with a libretto in Sanskrit, no less) and “Akhnaten,” about the Egyptian pharaoh.

Along with 20 operas, Glass has composed music for numerous theater productions and films including “The Thin Blue Line” and “Notes on a Scandal.” His film scores have earned three Academy Award nominations.

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