Philip Glass is one of a handful of living classical composers who have attained a place in the collective public consciousness. His work, large-scale pieces such as the 1976 opera “Einstein on the Beach” and movie scores like “The Hours,” is easily identifiable, mesmerizing and wholly original.
But he started performing in composer-led chamber ensembles in the SoHo lofts of 1970s New York and that’s what he brought to Helzberg Hall for “An Evening of Chamber Music,” part of the Kauffman Center’s Vanguard Series. He shared the intimate, introspective piano recital with violinist Tim Fain.
Glass is often misidentified as a minimalist. Though his work utilizes repetition as a structural element, it’s densely layered, featuring protracted melodic ideas and meditative phrasing.
Anyone who arrived at the concert thinking that Glass’ music would be mechanistic was disabused of the notion immediately with the urgency of his “Metamorphosis” solo. He played selections from the set, each with a similar undulating accompaniment punctuated by a singular, resonant bass note and topped by morphing, organic themes.
He introduced Fain for “Partita,” which premiered in 2011. The challenging seven-movement solo work evolved from a simple, mournful tune into a passionate, virtuosic display, laced with Glass’ iconic arpeggiation. The microphone did Fain no favors, however, as it popped, whined feedback and amplified the violinist’s breathing.
Glass played two more “Metamorphosis” to let Fain “get his breath back,” Glass joked. They then performed three sections from “The Screens.”
Glass offered a lengthy introduction for “Wichita Vortex Sutra,” a piece he created with Allen Ginsberg in 1988, based on the eponymous poem. Since Ginsberg’s death in 1997 Glass has been reluctant to perform the piece. However, having found the tape of Ginsberg jubilantly reciting the work and since “this is about as close as I’m going to get to Wichita,” said Glass, he decided to play it.
“This is a prayer,” he said before beginning, “for the energy system called Wichita.”
He played a soulful theme, conjuring a church surrounded by fields, while Ginsberg’s voice boomed from overhead speakers: “I here declare the end of the war!”
After that, the remainder of the concert was mere icing. They performed “Pendulum,” a work of continuous motion and triumphant melody and finished the evening with an encore each: Glass on “Closing” from “Glassworks” and Fain on a viciously nimble rendition of a theme from “Einstein.”