The Philip Glass Ensemble came to Colston Hall as the culminating event of Bristol’s Glassfest collaboration between Colston Hall, St George’s and the Watershed cinema to present the première of Philip Glass Ensemble: Retrospective. Performing key works from early on in American minimalist composer Philip Glass’s career, the ensemble returned to Bristol after their first visit to the city nearly 40 years ago for the opening of the Arnolfini Art Gallery.

Philip Glass Ensemble © James Ewing
Philip Glass Ensemble
© James Ewing

The programme of works was a niche selection from a time period where much of Philip Glass’ works set out to achieve the same goal. Originally commissioned for the opening of the Los Angeles Olympic Games, in 1984, CIVIL warS – Cologne Section opened the evening. The pieces built up slowly, much in the same structure, to a cyclical stable state of rhythms until they cut off at the end. The result is a hypnotic state in which the rhythms, utterly addictive, pulsed throughout Colston Hall until they cut at the end of each piece of music, snapping the audience out of their trance. The second half of the concert was more varied with the highlight being a sumptuous melodic piece called Façades from Glass’s Glassworks. Jon Gibson, who has been a member of The Philip Glass Ensemble since its inception in 1969, played the alto saxophone solo melody over pulsing tones by the rest of the ensemble. He played the haunting long notes with vibrato and the faster ascending melody with a simple tone. This performance received the biggest applause of the evening and was the only piece with a real melody. The performance of The Grid from the film Koyaanisqatsi was missing imagery to aid the music and could have perhaps broken up the very similar style of Glass’ pieces in the first half of the concert.

Vocalist Lisa Bielawa was clearly the star of the evening. She not only sang repetitive rhythms of one or two notes for up to ten minutes at a time, but also played contrasting rhythms on the keyboard whilst singing. Her particular keyboard programmed to sound like a choir and the effect created a rich synthesized choral sound. The purity of her voice was much more characteristic of a church singer than an operatic soloist yet matched the woodwind instruments in the group, which varied between saxophones, clarinets and flutes. In some of the pieces she had to pause to sip some water, which was understandable due to the amount of stamina required for her part. In fact, she wasn’t the only member of the Ensemble who had to take a pause mid piece. This noticeably detracted from the music but felt unavoidable in the length of the whole concert. That, perhaps, is more a fault of Glass himself in writing music for other people than the performers themselves.

The other issue, caused by the stamina required to play Glass’ music, was a difficulty to maintain exactly the same tempo within the ensemble; a problem that could have only been solved by someone conducting, which is almost impossible due to the concentration required on the score not to miss a note or a beat. As an onlooker to the ensemble, it seemed as though each of the musicians were immersed in the score and the music but not necessarily as a unified whole on stage, but perhaps this is again part of the hypnotic effect of some of Glass’ early works. This effect was most prominent in the second half’s Music in Similar Motion where each musician is playing in completely different rhythms. Glass himself was nodding from the keyboard to specific players at their particular entrances though it appeared that some were missed. Before the piece, he spoke with his gentle voice to say that the ensemble performs this piece every year since the group formed in 1969.

As a concert in its own right, the evening didn’t give the full overview of Philip Glass as a composer, but nevertheless provided a real intellectual insight into Glass’ earlier music and his true minimalist roots. Where someone hoping to hear his more populist pieces might have been disappointed by the concert, the true fans were delighted and shouted their respect in a sell-out performance. There is no doubt that the unity between the Bristol art venues to create a large festival to celebrate the living composer’s work was a brilliant idea and will hopefully be the first collaboration of many.

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