You have to hand it to Philip Glass: 75 years old and a career on fire. And even more remarkable are the simple musical elements that made that career: the oscillating thirds, the arpeggios, and the basic melodic motifs that have entranced a vast spectrum of listeners.

Tim Fain and Philip Glass © Ovidio Aldegunde, Jofre Theater Ferrol
Tim Fain and Philip Glass
© Ovidio Aldegunde, Jofre Theater Ferrol

New York has seen a flurry of concerts to fete the hometown composer in his 75th year. The latest was held in the stunning atmosphere of the Egyptian Temple of Dendur at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, featuring Glass at the piano and violinist Tim Fain. While the evocative setting was appropriate for Glass’s otherworldly music, the program was at risk of drowning in the swimming pool-like acoustic. Several amplifiers helped, and it didn’t hurt that Glass’ music lends itself to a certain amount of blend. The only thing lost was the discussion that radio host Terrance McKnight had with the artists before the concert, and the brief introductions the performers gave before each piece.

As dusk fell on Central Park, Glass began the program with Mad Rush, a 1979 piece originally written for organ. You “can still hear the organ lurking around,” Glass explained. The 15-minute work reflects a relatively early Glass style, in which he lingers over harmonies and patterns for long stretches, creating the trance-like effect that he is known for. Larger sections of oscillating thirds and rippling minor chords repeat during the piece and create a discernible form, with repeated melodic gestures throughout. Not surprisingly, Glass plays his own music well, with a touch of rubato and phrasing that gently leads the listener through a pleasant journey.

In stark contrast was the Partita for solo violin, written for Fain in 2011. Gone are the long stretches of harmonic stasis, or even the later Glass style of harmonies shifting frequently over a sustained rhythmic motif. Glass described the piece as an homage to Bach’s solo violin music, and it had the purposeful meandering of Bach’s preludes, but also the pyrotechnics of 19th-century violin virtuosi. Glass’ well-known voice was less obvious in this style; the time-stopping repetitions evolved into vaguely repetitive noodling. The oscillating thirds and arpeggios played a role, but were woven throughout more expansive sections. Most of the seven movements began slow and worked up into faster section, except for a short, toccata-like movement with rapid passagework. Fain brought consummate virtuosity and a fiery, Romantic temperament to the piece, with heaps of portamenti, vibrato, and rubato.

Glass described Metamorphosis for solo piano (1989) as a “synthesis” of music he was working on for the movie A Thin Blue Line and a staging of Kafka’s The Metamorphosis. Tonight he performed the fourth and fifth pieces from the set. Harmonies moved more quickly here than in Mad Rush, staying only a bar or two before moving on. Perhaps the title refers to the metamorphosis of music from two different projects, but the music itself didn’t manifest a metamorphosis. It whirled around in pretty phrases until it was done.

The incidental music from a 1989 production of Jean Genet’s play The Screens had a different character, owing to Glass’s collaboration with the Gambian musician Foday Musa Suso. Glass and Fain chose three excerpts, arranged for violin and piano. Like French salon miniatures, they recalled Satie with slow, habanera-like bass lines beneath long, beautiful violin melodies. The performers again brought out the Romantic qualities of the music, emphasizing the singing qualities of the violin line and adding touches of rubato.

The 1989 piece Pendulum closed the program. A short virtuoso showpiece originally written for piano trio, it was commissioned to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the American Civil Liberties Union in 2010. It started out with slowly oscillating double stops, then grew from one energetic section to another, ending on a rousing high note.

For an encore, Glass played “Closing” from Glassworks, perhaps his most popular album from the 1980s: a sweet, modal gem that made for a heartfelt send-off. But Fain had the last, very impressive word, performing “Knee Play 2” from Einstein on the Beach, the 1975 opera that made Glass’ name. Fain played it at breakneck speed, much faster than the original recordings, turning it into a sort of minimalist “Flight of the Bumblebee.” The chaconne-like bassline was more evident this way, but the piece flew by in nearly pitchless buzzing.

This dazzling encore, and the entire concert, vividly illustrated the shifts in Glass’s composing style. Fain’s virtuosity hearkens back to the Romantic era, a world away from the original recordings of Einstein, but it is entirely appropriate for Glass’ newest work, such as the Partita. In finding new paths for his music, Glass has gone back to the past, augmenting his minimalist idiom with elements of Baroque and Romantic styles. Though he achieved renown as a minimalist, he now sees himself as a classicist.