Monday, March 2, 2009

The Premiere of Philip Glass's Violin Sonata

March may have come in a bit like a lion (despite some deceptive fleece), but February went out with a celebration.

It’s not every day a town-in-the-provinces (as most trend-setting culture vultures in New York or Los Angeles would view a city like Harrisburg) gets to hear the world premiere of a work by one of the best known composers writing today.

It may have seemed slender by comparison to getting first dibs on his latest opera or symphony or even a string quartet, but the Violin Sonata that Philip Glass composed for Maria Bachmann and Jon Klibonoff to play at this past weekend’s Market Square Concerts performance at Whitaker Center is a work that may well have legs to be heard around the world, eventually. And when it is heard, when other violinists begin to learn and play it, when audiences in New York or Europe or Japan hear it for the first or tenth time and when it is recorded and people everywhere will be listening to it, it will say on the score, in the program notes, or in the liner notes that it was commissioned for these performers to play by Martin Murray in honor of the 70th birthday of his wife, Lucy Miller Murray, and was first heard in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. And most people will wonder where the heck that is...

The composer was in California, performing some of his own music there and therefore was unable to attend the premiere of his Violin Sonata here. But he sent an e-mail to be read to the audience which WITF-FM’s classical music host, Cary Burkett, read from the stage. I quote it here with permission from Market Square Concerts Director Ellen Hughes:

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Among my earliest memories of enjoying music are the many hours spent listening to the great masterpieces of 19th century chamber music with my father, Benjamin Glass. He had a small record shop in downtown Baltimore and he regularly would bring home albums of 78 rpm’s, the staple for music lovers in those days. Among his favorites were the violin/piano sonatas of Brahms, Faure and the great masterpiece of Franck. I spent many, many hours with my father listening to these works.

When Maria Bachman approached me about a new work for her and Jon Klibonoff, these musical memories immediately came to mind. Of course, the great composers of the past have set an almost impossible standard for the present. However, it is fair to say that they continue to inspire today's and, hopefully, future generations. Also it is fair to say that, even as the language of music continues to grow with the times, many basic elements of structure, harmony and rhythm will have a somewhat familiar sound to today's audiences.

During the composition of the music you are about to hear, I met numerous times with Maria and Jon to hear them play through new movements and revisions as they were completed. I want to thank Maria for the many suggestions regarding bowing, phrasing and other musical details that became part of the work. On his part, Jon, with his wealth of experience, provided the support and encouragement that make the work of a composer somewhat easier and most enjoyable.

Again I would like to thank Martin and Lucy Murray for commissioning this work, thereby making it possible for it to be composed. I understand that they themselves are amateur musicians who hope to play at least part of it themselves. I thought that the second movement might be a good place for them to start.

Finally, I want to thank the audience for being present at this premiere performance. Without devoted and committed listeners the music world would be a lonely place indeed.

I regret very much I can't be with you for this special evening. I am in California also performing and will have to catch up with this violin/piano sonata at a later date.

I hope you enjoy the music.

Philip Glass
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It would be an understatement to say the audience at Whitaker Center did enjoy the music. I have rarely seen such a spontaneous standing ovation after a piece of “new music” in this city – the other time was the performance of Jennifer Higdon’s Percussion Concerto with the Harrisburg Symphony last season – and the enthusiasm was definitely genuine.

There’s no secret that the “major buzz” about this performance was the Glass Premiere. People were coming from New York and Philadelphia (and quite likely other places beyond the periphery of Central Pennsylvania) to hear it and would have come no matter what else was on the program. There were more “young people” in the audience (these days usually referring to “people with hair other than white”) and a large number of students who might not have been there if the Glass weren’t on the program.

Looking around the hall – one of the few times I’ve seen Whitaker’s Sunoco Theater filled for a classical music program – it was refreshing to think, in an age when people were reluctant to program modern music for fear of scaring people off, that perhaps it’s new music that is actually bringing people into the concert halls for a change, rather than relying on the museum-like presentation of the great, much-admired, long-dead Classical Canon.

And what of the newest of the new?

The sense of enjoyment was augmented by a clear sense of pride – this was OUR piece, written for US: WE got to hear it first. People at the reception afterwards were wondering what it must have been like to have been at the premiere of the Brahms 3rd Sonata which concluded this program, first heard “out-of-town” in Budapest in 1888, or when Beethoven’s 9th Symphony was played for the first time. This sense of “discovery” is different from hearing a piece you yourself have never heard before, caught up in the collective experience of all those you are sharing it with, knowing that no one else has heard this music before you have.

Oh, technically speaking, that may not be entirely true. If you attended Lucy Miller Murray’s birthday party you would have had the chance to hear the first movement played through when Martin Murray presented the piece to her, mysteriously referred to on the invitation as “presentation of the husband’s gift.” She was surprised to answer the door to find Maria Bachmann and Jon Klibonoff standing there but since they are good friends, how nice of them to be able to come to the party. Little did she (or any of the guests) know why they were there. The first movement, at that time, was all that was complete and so they performed it privately as the gift that has been a topic of conversation in this town – or at least in its classical musical circles – ever since.

If you attended the Soundscape presentation with the performers on Friday afternoon, the day before the concert – you can read my post about that here – you would have heard the third movement. If you were listening to WITF-FM later that afternoon, when Cary Burkett interviewed the performers on a live broadcast, you would have heard them play the second movement.

So it’s conceivable some people might have heard all the music on the installment plan before the official premiere. But that doesn’t alter the impact (or the officialness) of hearing it whole.

The first movement begins with the standard rippling arpeggios that are one of Glass’s foremost fingerprints. But there was something different here: I had been wondering how Glass, best known for working with multiple keyboards or a full orchestra, using different layers of instruments and voices where he can build intensity by adding more and more layers to the mix, would meet the challenge of writing for just two players. But even at 71, this is one composer not afraid to be looking at his own voice and wondering what else can he do.

At times, the texture was simplistically bare – one reason this style has always been dubbed, for better or worse, “minimalism” – the piano at times just highlighting a simple bass-line. But like the famous C Major Prelude from Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier which is “just” arpeggiated chords that spells out an implied melody in its upper notes, Glass begins to weave these into more than just blocks of repeated chords. The texture might remind you of Mozart but there were times, especially with a particular fragment in the left-hand, that was pure Schubert – and literally, Schubert at his purist. Not that it wasn’t ever unmistakably Philip Glass. But there was something subtler at work here, something I may have not paid attention to in his music before, overcome by the more obvious repetitions.

To skip ahead to the third movement, I kept thinking this was more like a chaconne, an old-fashioned Baroque process with a repeated chord-pattern that underpins a series of ever-spinning variations. The instruments traded patterns and their variants back and forth, occasionally bounded by a little wisp of a wider-ranging arpeggio up into the upper registers. The movement had a sense of forward motion, building tension very subtly without going to the extremes Beethoven or Brahms might, for instance. This was a language based on chords and their hypnotic repetitions becoming harmony. And if you’re thinking “aren’t chords and harmony the same thing,” harmony is more the art of taking chords and putting them into a social context which gives them a sense of forward motion (the whole basis of tonal music and one reason why many people feel unsatisfied with non-tonal music because it lacks that focus to grab onto). At the end, it was that little wisp that evaporated into thin air and it was over.

It’s the second movement I found stunning. “Emotional” is not something I would attribute to Glass’s music on a primary level. Beautiful, yes, but usually in a “classical,” objective way. Here were chords (outright or implied) sliding past each other, one strand in the violin, the other in the piano, creating a kind of dissonance or tension I had not expected to find. Melody by itself is also something many people don’t look for in Glass’s music unless it’s built up through the chords like Bach does with that C Major Prelude. And beyond that, it spins.

Despite his suggestion for two amateur musicians to start with the second movement, it is not easy to play just because it’s slow: like Mozart, there is more to this music than just getting the notes. This is truly the heart of this piece, a loving statement thoroughly fitting the dedicatees, a loving gift from a husband to his wife. And how wonderful that we had the chance to share it with them.

-- Dr. Dick

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I would write more about the rest of the program – oh yes, they played Ravel’s G Major Sonata, Enescu’s Sonata “in the Romanian Popular Style,” and Brahms’ 3rd Sonata in D Minor – but I have reached my word-limit ;-)

The photographs were taken at the reception in the Sunoco Performance Theater Lobby following the performance.
Top: L-R w/pianist Jon Klibonoff, Ed Harsh from Meet the Composer who was instrumental in arranging the commission, Martin Murray and Lucy Miller Murray (holding the score of the sonata), and violinist Maria Bachmann.
2nd Photo: Martin Murray and Maria Bachmann (holding her copy of the score of Glass's Violin Sonata) share some champagne.
3rd Photo: WITF's Cary Burkett and Lucy Miller Murray (proudly displaying the score) pose for the kammerblogger.
4th Photo: Maria Bachmann signing autographs for members of the audience.


  1. Do these classical music fans go home and crank Act III of "The Photographer" on their stereo when they get home? LOL!

  2. Dear Dr. Dick,

    Simply reading this desription was a treat so I can imagine what it must have been like to be in the audience. Thank you so much for sharing your impressions with us and as a major Philip Glass fan I cannot wait to experience these compositions for myself.