Philip Glass came to Amsterdam for a series of two concerts in the three-year-old Rabozaal theatre of De Melkweg. I attended the second show, billed as “An evening of film music and dance”. Glass himself opened the night playing Metamorphosis II on the piano, apparently because he was asked to do so. Fortunately he did it with great verve and suppleness. Glass’ piano music was the reason I started to appreciate him, and after this short performance I can see why I still feel that way. These works are examples of his powerful minimalist style, consisting of short note patterns played without any rests (arpeggios and ostinatos), sparsely-used deep bass notes, and beautiful, simple melodies. The piano keyboard was placed in the direction of the audience, allowing us to see the gracious movement of Glass’ right hand moving back and forth over his left hand.

Philip Glass in Florence, 1993
Philip Glass in Florence, 1993

Glass then welcomed Michael Riesman to the stage. Riesman has produced and conducted many of Glass’ pieces. He took his place behind the piano to play with the M & M ensemble, making their debut performance. Director Rob Malasch and harpist Lavinia Meijer brought together this skilled group of musicians playing violin, viola, cello and double bass. First up for Riesman and the M & M Ensemble was the Suite from The Hours, Riesman’s adaptation of Glass’ Academy Award winning film score. Riesman’s piano playing had a lovely swing to it, like a calmly flowing stream of water on which all the other instruments could float. Piano and strings drifted back and forth between mystery and melancholy. The piece offers some beautiful themes, my favorite being a heartbreaking viola melody. All the fluctuations in tempo occurred very naturally, and the ensemble acted as a coherent unit. Near the end of the piece Meijer introduced her harp by quite fiercely plucking a set of arpeggiated chords, welcomely adding a new kind of energy to the performance.

The harp was removed from the stage and the remaining musicians performed Glass’ 1999 compositions for the 1931 film Dracula. Originally written for the Kronos Quartet, tonight it was played by string quintet with added piano. Typical Glassian music intertwined with a sad kind of creepiness. Glass stated he didn’t want to use any horror clichés, and in that process he must not have wanted to make truly scary music. The performance remained calm, for a horror score. I was hoping for more extremities, not per se in the composition, but more so in the playing style. Especially now that the music did not have to adapt to the film, I felt the instrumentation could have been pushed more to its limits. I wanted to hear tones which were almost off key, almost too loud, almost... I didn’t experience a feeling like that. To my taste the sadness was enjoyable, but the creepiness was lacking.

The final performance of the night was Intaglio, a dance to a new arrangement of Glass’ Naqoyqatsi. Koert Stuyf, an old friend of Glass’, choreographed the dance. His wife Ellen Edinoff, age 74, took on the role of lead dancer. Producer Rob Malasch arranged this opportunity for Edinoff to fulfill the performance she had long wished to do. And he also fulfilled his own wish to see Stuyf and Edinoff together on the stage once more.

Naqoyqatsi has an epic, unworldly vibe to it. Fragile cello tones seemed to reverberate through a large, desolate area, until large drums and low-pitched horns slowly ploughed through the heavy soil. Philip Glass once said “It’s not about finding a voice, but trying to get rid of it” – and I think he did so very well with Naqoyqatsi, as the music turned out hauntingly beautiful. His signature sound is in there, but it is respectfully concealed. The repetitive cello patterns are disguised as melodic themes in which rest notes and vibrato notes become precious ornaments.

On the stage stood a tall red monolith, making a powerful gesture from the desolate planes below upwards into the unknown skies. More in the front of the stage, not paying any attention to the monolith, Edinoff gracefully moved as if she had lost her hopes in contacting that other world and instead decided to communicate with herself. Not with sadness, but with grace. She wore a robe and mask that reminded me a bit of Japanese Noh theatre, but the garment consisted of rows of carefully aligned rags that could hang and move around freely. Edinoff’s introspective poses shaped her robe into pompous aesthetic shapes. In the background three other dancers appeared, slowly sliding across the land like mystic templars, perhaps in search of Edinoff. But the beauty of desolation remained.