Any Philip Glass festival starts with a daunting question.
“Where do you start?” said Christopher Gruits, who assembled the forthcoming #GLASSFEST (Feb. 21-March 14) at the Annenberg Center, where Gruits is the executive and artistic director.
Options are dizzying amid the 83-year-old Glass’ 23 operas, 12 symphonies, 11 concertos and much, much more — including a BMW commercial.
And having dramatized the lives of Gandhi, Einstein, and Walt Disney, Glass is not stopping. #GLASSFEST concludes with The White Lama, The Improbable Legacy of Theos Bernard, about a 1940s “celebrity yogi” with a centerfold body, taste for rich wives, and claims of achieving esoteric spirituality.
On Feb. 29, near the start of the three-week festival, Annenberg presents the early-career marathon Music in 12 Parts from 1974, a five-hour work (with two intermissions and a dinner break) performed by the Philip Glass Ensemble.
While Philadelphia has mostly experienced Glass as a touring visitor over the years, #GLASSFEST has a strong local pedigree. The White Lama is an Annenberg co-commission and has been workshopped in the Philadelphia studio of director Nikki Appino, who conceived the project about the real-life hero/charlatan story.
The Knee Plays that open the festival (Feb. 21-22), with music that dates back to Glass’ 1976 opera Einstein on the Beach, are also something new — as locally developed by the Grammy-winning chamber choir the Crossing.
These short scenes connecting larger episodes have the usual dreamy counting and chanting from the opera’s free-flowing meditation on Einstein. But in #GLASSFEST, they’re mixed in with rather different 1985 knee plays that David Byrne, of Talking Heads fame, wrote for the epic Robert Wilson theater piece CIVIL warS.
Accompanied by a New Orleans-style brass band, Byrne’s knee plays have spoken commentary with provocative, contradictory predictions of the future that sound much like our 30-years-later fractured society. One of them: “In the future, it will be next to impossible to tell girls from boys, even in bed ... .”
None of the knee plays have traditional singing, or even vocalizing. “They ask questions about what is music,” said Donald Nally, director of the Crossing. “Some of them are fascinating moments in mid-20th century music.” But Nally also needed (and got) permission from Byrne to reconfigure them in whatever way was necessary.
Byrne’s musical presence in #GLASSFEST is part of what Gruits called an attempt to present Glass “in context with other composers that have meant a lot to him.” The connection between Glass and Byrne is Wilson. Jenny Lin’s March 5 solo piano recital, titled Glass Reflections, presents Glass alongside Schubert, Liszt, and Debussy.
How it all adds up is impossible to predict — even by Glass himself, who has been keeping a lower profile even as his music increasingly enters the classical music mainstream. Though Glass is a casual, candid, funny, and often revelatory presence, he gives few interviews these days. For this occasion, he released only a prepared statement: “I hope this festival leaves a lasting mark on Philadelphia and the thriving music community."
He has told his story often: A kid from Baltimore, he grew up in a household where Holocaust refugees stayed, worked in a local record store, and landed in Paris studying with the legendary pedagogue Nadia Boulanger. Just by chance, he was asked to transcribe the music of Ravi Shankar, did it wrong, and out of that, developed his own minimalist style.
The incubation of his hypnotic, repetitive style — summed up in Music in 12 Parts — wasn’t in concert halls, but in downtown-Manhattan art galleries during the gritty 1970s.
The road wasn’t smooth. Even after the five-hour Einstein on the Beach toured Europe on a wing and prayer and had an acclaimed homecoming at the Metropolitan Opera, Glass was in such deep debt he had to go back to driving a cab.
Speaking from experience, he once said that being pelted with food during a curtain call is a political act rather than artistic commentary because the audience had to acquire the food in advance of hearing the music.
The fundamental difference between Glass and traditional classical composers before him is this: Though Western music has an implied destination in the first chord, Glass insists that music can be stationary. Like a Buddhist meditation — and Glass is indeed a Buddhist — his music exists in the present, with tiny changes marking the passage of time.
But Music in 12 Parts is hardly a meditation. Aggressive and hard-edged, the music has a metallic sheen that’s softened somewhat by a high soprano voice.
Challenging as it still is, the Feb. 29 performance has sold well, says Gruits. And that unusual concert is the most predictable event of the festival.
The Knee Plays have many wild cards. Mixing Glass and Byrne promises radical juxtapositions.
“Byrne is into hyper-objectivity. His observations of the world are sometimes funny, sometimes raw,” says Nally, “whereas Glass’ texts [attributed to Christopher Knowles] can feel surreal but actually have an underpinning of romanticism.”
The Byrne texts will be interpreted by Philadelphia actor Dito van Reigersberg, (aka the drag personality Martha Graham Cracker). While the Byrne originals are mainly spoken, the Crossing arrangements will have backup singers. Nally has also created his own knee plays — to connect the knee plays.
The White Lama is a new chapter in Glass’ exploration of ethnic music through intense collaborations with non-Western musicians.
Singer/instrumentalist/composer Tenzin Choegyal worked with Glass in the 2016 film The Last Dalai Lama?, and was a natural choice as his collaborator on the score for the Appino-conceived theater piece about Bernard.
The challenge of collaboration is that Glass writes down his music and Choegyal does not. So the two composers worked separately then met often to demonstrate and possibly meld what they had.
Their bond is a deep feeling for the culture that Bernard explored. “Philip is very close to Tibet” said Choegyal. “When we first started collaborating …, he said, 'Tenzin, nobody can do what you do.’ It was like getting affirmation from your guru.”
Untangling the webs woven by Bernard — who flaunted his sex appeal and once claimed that his yogic powers allowed him to create an earthquake tremor in California — is another matter.
Though Bernard created unprecedented awareness of Tibetan culture with his books and lectures, his showmanship made him a highly controversial figure, even today.
Appino cut through that: Both in the stage portrayal of Bernard and in video interludes, the subject will be quoted from letters and his two books — plus film footage he shot himself in India.
“This was never intended to be a biography,” said Appino. “He was a young man who had goals, ones that are beautiful and sincere, and I totally believe that. He was a guy going some place that no Westerner had gone before. You have to give him credit.”
The appeal to a composer such as Glass is obvious: Bernard’s Buddhist inner life was one way, and outer life quite another way — but with much poetic overlap.
“Come with me, in a flight on the clipper ship of imagination from San Francisco across the vast Pacific,” Bernard told his lecture audiences, “into the heart of Asia — the land of the Lama.”
Feb. 21-March 14 at the Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts.
Tickets: $10-$59. Some performances are sold out.