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New Minimalism at the Strathmore

So it’s rather widely known that the founding composers of this genre dislike the term for generalizing their oeuvres.  And among these composers, the two most likely to be memorialized by musicologists as defining pioneers are Philip Glass and Steve Reich.  And they are likely to be labeled Minimalists anywise for future generations to study and contextualize within the overall picture of late 20th Century musics, who broke free just barely from the rigid monopoly of the Second Viennese School heading into the 1970s.

From the other side of the Atlantic, it was Michael Nyman who first coined the term, himself a latter composer who adapted this style into his own unique idiom of European band-hall sounding modernism.  Later it was suggested that Minimalism is in truth a sort of “maximalism” – it uses patent repetitive structures to elongate the listener’s sensation of harmonic rhythm that is the fundamental basis of Western music theory (and the true nature of momentum in a score).  Well and good.

Whatever you call it, the next few days will deliver a rare opportunity to hear the two original masters, both at one place.  Thursday, America’s reigning purveyors of new music, the Bang on a Can All-Stars, will give an all-Reich concert at the Concert Hall at the Strathmore.  And on Sunday, concert virtuoso Robert McDuffie will deliver Glass’ new Violin Concerto No. 2 for its Washington premiere in the same space.

Speaking just for myself, and invoking a populist cliché, my sentiment about Minimalism is rather like, “You had me at the first repeat.”  This is a form that people evidently love, or hate, with few feeling in-between.  You might wax poetic about why this is:  perhaps it is the way that it evokes “existential dread,” in the words of documentary filmmaker Errol Morris who has called upon Glass for scoring his finest works (e.g., The Thin Blue Line).  Whether or not your philosophical disposition resonates with this notion of “existential dread” might have something to do with whether you prefer to see Planet Earth from outer space (in a vacuum, I suppose) or with your feet firmly planted on the ground.  This is the fundamental divide that is famously depicted in a fresco of Plato pointing to the ground, and Socrates pointing to the Heavens.  It always seemed to me that Plato is song-and-verse, while Socrates is all chorale.  Or something like that.

But this divide takes us back to the founders’ objection.  Rather than harping from an endless debate about whether to define music by its mere extent of repetition, I suppose that the objection has to do with the reality that this Minimalist school not surprisingly evolved.  John Adams best epitomizes this fact; you could compare his early works like Shaker Loops and China Gates to his recent Son of Chamber Symphony and take a backwards journey from Minimalism to Serialism.  To a lesser extent, Glass’ music has become increasingly lyrical, and deliberately cognizant of Baroque/Classical forebears.  Early Glass works were most likely to end in a way that sounds like a power outage; now he seems actually comfortable with the music theory mechanism called “terminal cadence.”  This would have seemed preposterous in those years when his original Ensemble played to weed-smoking New Yorkers sitting cross-legged at industrial lofts in a reactionary, avant-garde spirit.  Now that Glass has joined the legion of “immortal beloveds” within the pantheon of classical composers, he is actually more than ever simply sounding like them.

Sunday’s performance bespeaks this to the most obvious ever extent.  The evening pairs Glass’ new work, subtitled “The American Four Seasons,” with Antonio Vivaldi’s actual “The Four Seasons.”  Glass wrote the score specifically for Robert McDuffie, who is aggressively touring the country in an extensive commitment to the work that is unprecedented for the introduction of any new concerto.  Recently we had the intimate opportunity to hear McDuffie perform the finale from Glass’ preceding violin concerto at the Phillips Collection’s Music Salon (on a program that included his perfect performance of Igor Stravinsky’s neo-classical masterpiece Suite Italienne).  McDuffie proposed, during an informal chat afterward, that Glass stands nearly alone as a modern composer whose work is deeply idiomatic and thus instantly recognizable.  (He also told a priceless anecdote about how he came to procure his priceless violin, by way of Georgia bankers and Southern charms; it got the audience in stitches laughing.)

This notion of a singular style rings true for Reich too, but to these ears, his music seems after so many years merely persistent, in some sense obliged to a rubric of his own making.  Even his new chamber work 5x2 on Thursday’s program, which makes use (for the first time, his record label boasts!) of rock-and-roll instrumentation, sounds largely indistinguishable from his early works – the same pulse, the same unison percussion, the same vocal drones.  While any new Reich work still is a rare thrill to hear, he leaves open the question of how history will treat him as an important composer in the Minimalist canon.  It has been many years since he invested the kind of epic depth to be found in his 1983 choral symphony of William Carlos Williams poems, The Desert Music.

The Thursday performance is at 8:00 p.m.; the Sunday performance is at 7:00 p.m.  Both are in the Concert Hall at the Music Center at Strathmore.

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