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Review: Philip Glass Continues to Celebrate With Collaborating at National Sawdust

By Christopher Johnson, Contributing Writer, March 14, 2017

Philip Glass’s eightieth-birthday celebrations continued this past Sunday with a charming joint recital with Foday Musa Suso, before a packed house at National Sawdust. The program consisted of selections from two of their collaborative works—incidental music for Jean Genet’s play The Screens (1990), and the 2004 Olympic commission Orion—as well as recent solo compositions. They were joined by cellist Jeffrey Zeigler and percussionist Asher Delerme.

In a pre-concert conversation with Robert Thurman about connections between music and spirituality, Glass spoke of commitment, “dedication to the work,” and paying attention. The best thing about the concert was the close attention Glass and Suso paid one another—Glass sitting still and silent at the piano, fascinated by Suso’s Rose Garden, and Suso, eyes closed, nodding in agreement and appreciation at finely-achieved structural arrivals in Glass’s Orbit—and Delerme’s exquisite partnering, including a few backup-vocals so tight that it took a few minutes to figure out where they were coming from.

Suso, a Mandingo griot from Gambia who settled in the United States in 1977, is a master of the kora, a fantastic instrument combining salient aspects of the harp (21 strings) and lute (an enormous belly carved from a calabash), with a bridge and tail comparable to those of the violin family (but much larger), held on the lap, supported by the outer three fingers of both hands and picked, like a two-sided Delta blues guitar, with the thumbs and index-fingers. (To get a close look at the basic playing-techniques, and of the structural and expressive range of contemporary instruments, check out this busker on the Paris métro playing a traditional instrument with leather rings, and these playing koras with Western-style machine heads, one in London’s Notting Hill and the other, playing in a distinctly flamenco style, in Park Güell, Barcelona.) Apart from the obvious technical elements that Suso’s music shares with Glass’s—the repetitive structures, the cyclic use of a small number of chords, the prevalence of straightforward arch-forms—its effect is hard to describe. Rose Garden came across as a fascinating set of progressive variations on a tingling ground, while Kenyalon featured a rapid-fire kora riff, fiercely syncopated, and Voices of Octaves went even further, developing enormous, Ravel’s-Boléro-like intensity out of only two chords. You have to hear it: there are four samples here.

Glass’s work requires no comment at this late date, except that his most arresting pieces were also his most retro: Night on the Balcony could almost have passed for Schubert or early Chopin, while Orbit, for solo cello (delicately supplemented on Sunday by percussion), paid heartfelt tribute to Bach’s suites.

The performances were subtly undercut by amplification, which seemed unnecessary in a room this intimate. It wasn’t particularly loud, but it had a flattening effect, especially on the cello, which sounded oddly commercial when it descanted on the other instruments, as it frequently did, and on the piano, which pretty much disappeared into the general fabric. We could see that Glass was having a really good time and was fully committed to everything he played, but apart from his one solo and a couple of high-treble licks in Cloud Walk, you couldn’t really hear him. Still, this was a terrific collaborative performance, and just watching the visual communication among the players was a joy. Suso was as amazing in this regard as in his actual playing. Zeigler’s account of Orbit was riveting. Delerme was simply perfect in every way.

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Glass @ 80: Philip Glass and Foday Musa Suso with Asher Delerme and Jeffrey Zeigler at National Sawdust, Co-presented with the World Music Institute on March 12, 2017. Philip Glass, piano; Foday Musa Suso, kora and vocals; Asher Delerme, percussion and vocals; Jeffrey Zeigler, cello.

 

Cover: (l. to r.) Philip Glass, Foday Musa Suso, Asher Delerme and Jeffrey Zeigler at National Sawdust; photo: Jill Steinberg.


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