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Bwog Reviews: “Opening Night: Bach + Glass”

Simone Dinnerstein and A Far Cry

New Bwogger and live music aficionado Zack Abrams attended the Miller Theatre last night for the show ‘Bach + Glass: Opening Night’ featuring pianist Simone Dinnerstein and Boston-based chamber orchestra A Far Cry who performed music by J.S. Bach and Philip Glass.

Last night, I jumped at the opportunity to cover the latest show from the Miller Theatre for Bwog. Entitled Bach + Glass, the show brought together two radically different composers with a peculiar chamber orchestra and a fantastic soloist.

The theater itself is warm and inviting. The small size means there are no bad seats in the house and no visible microphones or large amplifiers were necessary in order to hear each and every instrument perfectly. When I sat down, a concert grand piano sat patiently in the rear, while several music stands and only 3 chairs took up the front of the stage. The lights dimmed as the Executive Director of the theater, Melissa Smey, excitedly introduced the show.

The reason for the absence of many chairs was soon apparent; A Far Cry, the accomplished chamber orchestra which performed the first two pieces and accompanied guest pianist Simone Dinnerstein on the latter two, had no conductor, and every musician except the cellists stood for the duration of the performance. For each piece, the Boston-based group elects five musicians to jointly perform the role of the conductor, guiding the interpretation and execution of each piece. During the performances, the impeccably timed musicians communicated with swift glances back and forth and a shared musical language. I learned later that they have collaborated with several of my favorite artists in the classical genre, including Yo-Yo Ma, Jake Shimabukuro, and Roomful of Teeth.

The first piece of the night was the Brandenburg Concerto No. 3 in G Major, BWV 1048 by Johann Sebastian Bach. Written in 1721, the three-movement piece fit cleanly into the Baroque era, with the violins, violas, and cellos deftly trading runs with one another. What was remarkable about the debút wasn’t the timeless source material but rather the communication by the musicians with one another. Free to move without the constraints of a chair, the natural push and pull of the composition was emphasized by the kinematic energy and emotion of A Far Cry, whose diverse age range made their close-knit connection all the more fascinating. Though I felt the control of dynamics was somewhat lacking, the fluid and upbeat concerto provided an interesting contrast to the second piece of the night.

Philip Glass, if you are unfamiliar, is widely cited as one of the most influential classical composers of the twentieth century. Divorcing himself from both centuries-old Baroque traditions as well as the modern music of the time, Glass became known for his mastery of minimalism and repetitive themes, with several of his most famous works including spoken words and diverse instrumentations.

After the Brandenburg Concerto, A Far Cry returned with Glass’s Symphony No. 3, which was composed of four movements. While the Bach piece was marked by fluid cohesion, the first movement of the Glass piece segregated the different groups of instruments, which traded similar themes back and forth, slowly rising in intensity. The second movement rejected the prior’s format completely, presenting a fast-paced melody which was played simultaneously by every instrument throughout most of the movement. The third and fourth movements played out as embellished repetitions of the former two, with an especially triumphant climax at the end of the fourth movement. With this composition, Glass showed his prowess at both cyclical melodies and more upbeat movements, whose strange time signature A Far Cry handled perfectly; a difficult feat with no conductor to keep track.

Intermission followed thereafter, so here’s an intermission to the music discussion: One fascinating piece of technology that accompanied A Far Cry to the stage was their sheet music. While some of the musicians used traditional sheet music, others instead used tablets that were controlled by foot pedals, allowing the musicians to continue playing without interruption or the cluttering of page-turners. Neat!

As the lights dimmed again, the piano was brought to the forefront of the stage, and soon enough Simone Dinnerstein entered to a large round of applause. Dinnerstein, who has had several classical albums hit the Billboard #1 classical charts, gained notoriety especially for her self-funded interpretations of Bach’s Goldberg Variations. Joining her again was A Far Cry, now with 18 members filling up the stage.

Dinnerstein provided a bright and plucky interpretation of the next Bach piece, Keyboard Concerto in G minor, BWV 1058. The piece showcased a typical three-movement structure, with the first movement being upbeat and melodic, the second having a more subdued tone, and the third providing a more exciting and rhythmic conclusion. While I enjoyed the inclusion of the piano, the fact that the piece was written for the harpsichord was plain, and while Dinnerstein integrated well with the other musicians, the piece was mostly unremarkable, without much emotional weight.

Luckily, the final piece of the night was by far the best. Glass wrote the piece, entitled Piano Concerto No. 3, specifically with Dinnerstein and A Far Cry in mind, and the result is evident. The musicians resonated beautifully with the music, especially Dinnerstein, who had her eyes closed for much of the piece, especially during her cadenzas, where the piano was the only instrument played for several minutes. The full force of the piece was carried on her shoulders, and her passion in turn engaged the audience and players alike.

The concerto included many distinct elements of Glass’ style, and the feat is especially impressive considering he will be eighty-one years of age in January. Much of the piano part was built from chords strung together alternating with broken-down arpeggios, with Dinnerstein handled with precise grace. Again, it is important to recognize the achievement of the impeccable timing of the ensemble without a conductor to guide the complicated work. Each movement ended with a long, drawn out piano cadenza, slowly lowering the piece to an emotional nadir, before the next movement rose in strength once again. In this way, Glass subverted the typical call-and-response nature of the concerto, instead allowing Dinnerstein to moderate the intimate dialogue herself.

By far the most impressive movement of the night was the third and final movement of Glass’s Piano Concerto, which slowly revolved around repeated melodies. The musicians were like a monumental organism, breathing in and out as the intensity and harmony grew and faded, all while Dinnerstein conveyed her passion on her face, with eyes closed. Speaking to a few members of the audience after the music slowly faded into silence, each was as moved by the piece as I was.

Looking forward in the season, Simone Dinnerstein will return to the Miller Theatre on January 18th to perform another of Glass’ works, entitled Selected Etudes and Metamorphoses, this time paired with two pieces by Franz Schubert. Tickets are on sale now at the Miller Theatre website. I highly recommend that you attend this showing, I’ll certainly be there.

Photo via The Miller Theatre

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