I haven’t been to a world premiere since my hometown Newmarket Citizens’ Band unveiled The Newmarket Era and Express March one lovely Sunday ages ago in the park.
So it was a big thrill to be at another premiere on Saturday, in this case, the first public performance of a new composition by the renowned Philip Glass. Nor was it just some ditty, if I can use that word when dealing with serious music (I do note that Glass has cooperated in the past with the likes of Mick Jagger…).
This was a satisfying, 30-minute work, String Quartet No. 6, performed by the eclectic Kronos Quartet at the sold-out Chan Centre, designed to mark the Quartet’s 40th anniversary. Even better, in an undertaking both bold and risky, Glass was co-commissioned to write the piece by the Chan Centre, itself, through UBC’s Faculty of Arts. How cool is that? Vancouver is now on the global cultural map for more than Mr. Peanut.
The affable, 76-year old composer was there for the occasion, his first composition for a string quartet since 1991, charmingly discursive and spry during a 60-minute, pre-concert question and answer session with CBC arts treasure, Eleanor Wachtel. When Wachtel asked him why he wrote so many pieces for quartet, rather than orchestra, he replied: “Eleanor, it’s affordable.”
Glass also revealed his friendship with the great Patti Smith and admiration for her award-winning autobiography, Just Kids, which he said has inspired him to produce his own life story. On another diverse note, he expressed disappointment that he ended up only doing the score for a re-release of the 1931, fright-film classic Dracula, when he was offered others, as well. “I wanted to do The Mummy and Frankenstein, too.”
As for String Quartet No. 6, Glass said, with a mischievous smile: “I knew I was giving them a piece that was difficult to play. And it was.” To these unsophisticated ears, however, it sounded smooth as, well, glass. Variously soothing, spirited, and always spell-binding.
At the work’s conclusion, as the audience erupted in a rousing ovation, Kronos Quartet founder David Harrington summoned Glass to the stage. He seemed genuinely moved. During a reception afterwards, Philip Glass praised the Quartet, with whom he has collaborated numerous times: “You have woven a garland of music.”
The multi award-winning Kronos Quartet seemed thrilled, too. When I asked Harrington whether String Quartet No. 6 has now found a place in the Quartet’s permanent repertoire, he responded: “Oh, yes. We’re playing it at our next concert, in Las Vegas.” I checked the local media. The Las Vegas Weekly headlined their coming performance as one featuring “the U.S. premiere of Philip Glass work”. Hah! Score one for the Chan.
(Incidentally, the Kronos Quartet absolutely loves playing at the Chan Centre, with its superb acoustics and intimate seating. Noting how nice it is to live in San Francisco, David Harrington added: “The city has everything but a venue like the Chan. I wish we could somehow bring it down and play there.”)
All in all, it was certainly worth missing Prince Fielder’s thundering, lugubrious, third base belly flop, at just about the time the Kronos Quartet began playing.
Below: Philip Glass and Eleanor Wachtel enjoying each other’s company on Saturday Night Live at the Chan. Photo by Tim Matheson.