Live: Philip Glass And Tim Fain Play The Temple Of Dendur

Philip Glass and Tim Fain Play Chamber Works
The Temple Of Dendur, Metropolitan Museum of Art
Saturday, April 21

Better than: Battling tourists to enjoy what may be the most beautiful room in New York City.

The Sackler Wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, containing the more than two-millennium old Temple of Dendur, is by itself one of the most stunning interior spaces in all of New York City, in this writer's humble opinion. On Saturday night, when it became the latest venue for celebrating Philip Glass's 75th birthday as the composer took to a Steinway (joined by the violinist Tim Fain), it also became apparent that it has some of the best acoustics for listening to solo instrumentation.

It's not just that the visual beauty added to experiencing Glass's chamber pieces. Glass's compositions, simultaneously modern and classical, created a nice juxtaposition with the space. Many of Glass's scores have combined a certain modernism with classical subjects (Akhenaten, Kepler, Dracula). The effect is that Glass can simultaneously fuse together a new perspective on an old subject—forcing the listener/viewer to examine the past in a fresh way—while also simultaneously tying various eras together in such a way that the challenges, ideas and struggles their populations once faced feel timeless and connected to the listener now.

WQXR's Terrance McKnight started the evening by briefly interviewing Glass and Fain, who described growing up on Einstein on the Beach (which couldn't have been composed very long before the baby faced violinist was born). Fain is one of the few soloists for whom Glass has composed solo material; asked why, Glass answered, "Because he's that good."

Glass started the evening at the keyboard alone, scrapping the scheduled "Two Etudes" for "Mad Rush." The piece was originally written for the organ, composed on the one at St. John the Divine on the occasion of the 14th Dalai Lama's first appearance in New York City. (Because the exact time of the Dalai Lama's arrival was not known, Glass was asked to write a piece of "indeterminate length," which he joked was no problem for him.) He has reworked "Mad Rush" a couple of times for piano, and the effect Saturday night was striking as the opening of the program, particularly in the way Glass's music can tie together the present and the past. After all, the effect of having simply walked through the Egyptian wing en route to the Temple had not been at all subtle. The audience passed by dozes of mummies, and there were dozens of dead bodies just off to the side of the hall; it was impossible to not think about death and mortality.

And, watching the 75-year-old Glass perform by himself, it was similarly impossible not to think about his mortality, too. He was spry and energetic as usual, but especially after seeing much larger-scale works of his in recent months (Satyagraha, "Music in 12 Parts," the premiere of
Symphony No. 9), he looked almost vulnerable at the piano by himself. "Glass's place in musical history is secure," Alex Ross wrote earlier this year in The New Yorker, and regardless of what comes next for him in the days ahead, that won't change. The effect of hearing Glass's hands play out the notes of "Mad Rush"—notes written for the Dalai Lama, ringing off surface material built by the hands of Egyptians thousands of years ago—was powerful indeed. The music will outlast the man himself, much as the Temple of Dendur predated everyone of us in that room that night by a couple millennia and will most likely outlast us by at least just as long.

But that reality made hearing the momentary magic of the music, played by the hands of the person who'd written, all the more fleeting, and connected.

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