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Greatest Gift: Philip Glass at Maverickby Peter Aaron

While composer Philip Glass’s name may not be as widely recognized as that of your average stadium-filling, platinum-selling pop act, it’s safe to say that many people have heard his music—or at least a proxy version of it—without even being aware of it. Glass, who eschews the minimalist tag he’s most commonly identified with, is arguably the most prominent and influential composer of the late 20th and early 21st centuries. While his flowing, constantly morphing melodic approach is audible in the ambient sides of Talking Heads, Brian Eno, David Bowie, and other popular non-classical artists, Glass himself is perhaps most widely known for his entrancing soundtracks to such films as Koyaanisquatsi, A Brief History of Time, The Fog of War, Kundun, and The Thin Blue Line. And he’s coming to our neck of the woods—the forested, historic Maverick Concerts site, to be specific—on August 8, for the area premiere of one of his newest works.

Glass was born in 1937 and grew up in Baltimore, Maryland. He studied at Juilliard with modernist composers William Bergsma, Vincent Persichetti, and Darius Milhaud and finally with esteemed instructor Nadia Boulanger in Paris during the mid ’60s. While in Europe he also met and worked with sitar giant Ravi Shankar, resulting in an immersion in the music of India and the Far and Middle East, which would have a great impact on his own compositions. In 1967 he returned to New York and formed the popular Glass Ensemble, a septet that used keyboards, woodwinds, and vocals to perform his music. But it was in 1976 that he indelibly established himself as a leading composer with the staging of Einstein on the Beach, the first of a galvanizing trilogy of operas that also includes Satygraha and Akhnaten. In addition to his soundtrack work, during the past 25 years Glass has composed more than 20 operas, as well as dozens of symphonies, string quartets, solo piano and organ pieces, and concertos of all sizes; he’s also collaborated with Allen Ginsberg, Linda Ronstadt, Leonard Cohen, Woody Allen, Paul Simon, and others. In contrast to the more rhythm-centric output of his contemporaries Steve Reich, Terry Riley, and John Adams, Glass’s compositions put a greater emphasis on melody, and the fleeting, tuneful fragments that interlace his works have led to them being described as “a sort of sonic weather that twists, turns, surrounds, develops.”

No doubt it’s an honor for Maverick that Glass has selected the storied hall for the regional premiere of his Sonata for Violin and Piano. And together with pianist Andrew Armstrong, the execution of that honor falls to violinist Maria Bachmann, who has worked closely with the composer, both in preparing the piece and in her role as artistic director of Colorado’s Telluride MusicFest, where Glass is currently composer-in-residence.“ [Glass] has been wonderful to work with,” Bachmann says. “There’s lots of give and take, he’s very open to trying new ideas if Andrew or I suggest something. It’s been really fun, actually.” Bachmann, who has a deep repertory background yet still flits freely between new music and the classics, finds definite echoes of the vanguard composers in Glass’s music. “It’s comparable to Mozart and Schubert, really. Very soulful, meditative, and haunting,” says the violinist, who on August 8 will perform the sonata along with works by Bartók, Kodály, Hubay, and Brahms; on August 3 she will play Beethoven, Bartók, and Brahms as a member of Trio Solisti. “[The sonata] is very simple on the page, but it’s very profound when you play it. Like a lot of [Glass’s] music, it almost feels transparent. But there’s also something very romantic about this piece—which is really fitting, since it was commissioned by a patron as a gift for his wife’s 75th birthday.”

A new work by Philip Glass is certainly quite a gift. To music lovers everywhere.

Maria Bachmann and Andrew Armstrong will perform the regional premiere of Sonata for Violin and Piano by Philip Glass, at Maverick Concerts August 8, at 6 PM, with the composer in attendance. See for more information.

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