Congratulations Talking Pointes Podcast, awarded bronze medal for Best Arts & Culture Podcast! Listen here
Maki Namekawa performs etudes by Philip Glass at Kaatsbaan Cultural Park. Photograph by Jack Baran

Harmonic Obsession

Celebrating Philip Glass at 85 at Kaatsbaan Cultural Park

Performance
Philip Glass' 85th Birthday Celebration
Place
Kaatsbaan Cultural Park, Hudson Valley, NY, September 17 & 18, 2022
Words
Karen Greenspan

The 85th birthday of Philip Glass was feted to perfection amid the verdant rolling meadows at Kaatsbaan Cultural Park in New York State’s Hudson River Valley. Nature conspired in staging an awe-provoking event with the Catskill Mountains as majestic backdrop, surrounding trees as arcaded entranceway for the performers, and clouds arriving on cue to mute the sun’s intensity.

Kaatsbaan collaborated with Pomegranate Arts in conceiving an event equal to the significant occasion. The inspired program was the brainchild of Pomegranate Arts founder and director Linda Brumbach, who has been producing Philip Glass for 35 years. In a conversation after the second of the two performances (I couldn’t resist attending both), Brumbach told me that she had envisioned the celebration of Glass’s 85th birthday with a program of his twenty etudes for solo piano with contemporary dance interpretations. But after much thought and negotiation, they chiseled it down to fifteen Glass etudes played live by five of the finest interpreters of his music complemented by five superb choreographers each responding to one from the fifteen. Each danced etude was sandwiched between two pure music numbers. The intelligence of the program was duly reflective of Glass’s creative genius and provided an opportunity for deep, imaginative listening and appreciation of the emotional scope of these works.

Glass began composing the twenty piano etudes in 1991 to have fresh repertoire for the solo piano recitals he was touring. Enjoying the intimacy of performing solo piano (in contrast to his ensemble work), he also conceived the compositions as a pedagogical strategy to improve his piano playing. Composer Nico Muhly said in The Guardian, “The fun of an etude is that it is a study. It’s designed for technical or harmonic obsessions.” In addition to technique building, as each work investigates a specific musical idea, it miraculously induces distinct emotional states. When taken altogether, the etudes offer a sweeping, diverse Glass experience.

Under the warm, late September sun, pianist Noé Kains broke nature’s silence rippling off Glass’s Etude #1 with its familiar minor-key chord progressions and repetitive structures. As the final tones dissipated, Brazilian tap dancer and choreographer Leonardo Sandoval, along with three dancers from his ensemble Music from the Sole (Ana Tomioshi, Orlando Hernández, and Lucas Santana) and pianist Noé Kains, formed a line stretching across the stage. Together, they clapped out syncopated rhythms repeating them until Sandoval stepped forward and integrated them into full body percussion and then into tapped footwork. Without missing a beat, Kains returned to his seat at the Yamaha grand piano to play Etude #13 with its frenetic, driving energy.

Sandoval and dancers glided, turned, and tapped their way with playful ease through various groupings including some square dance formations. They sailed above the piano’s persistent, propelling pulse with a lighthearted, unflappable energy accentuated by their billowing, blousy, silk shirts in jewel tones designed by Josie Natori (as were all the dancers’ costumes). The integration of the pianist into the choreography showcased tap dance’s unique nature as both dance and percussion as well as Sandoval’s practice of treating the musical element as important as the dancing.

Music from the Sole perform Etude #13 choreographed by Leonardo Sandoval. Photograph by Jack Baran

Bobbi Jene Smith and Or Schraiber, both veterans of the Batsheva Dance Company, co-created and danced Etude #8 as an unapologetic, heartfelt declaration of (their) love. Their pitch-perfect duet felt like a simultaneous translation of the epic, emotional anthem Connor Hanick drew out of the piano keys. Entering from opposite corners of the stage, they danced a couple’s negotiation of beginning and ongoing love. Wearing all-black, tango-inspired Natori designs, they moved along the diagonal path that stretched between them with the phrasing of a conversation. Schraiber’s initial advance was a candid plea with unmistakable gestures of overwhelm and attraction. Smith met his bold overture with a somewhat guarded reply. Then dropping all pretense, they ran full throttle into each other’s arms─Smith eventually falling flat on her back in utter surrender. Their ensuing partner dance flowed with a torrent of gestures and movement motifs evoking play, tenderness, hope, confrontation, expectation…until they pulled apart─Smith in the pose of cradling a baby, Schraiber dancing an exultant jig of private ecstasy. After a final, prolonged embrace, they walked again to their initial corners─but this time, each held the other’s gaze with a sense of connected completeness.

Patricia Delgado performs Etude #6 choreographed by Justin Peck. Photograph by Jack Baran

The turbulent opening repetitions in Etude #6 played by piano virtuoso Timo Andres must have set Justin Peck’s imagination on fire. The acting New York City Ballet resident choreographer created a mini portrait of intense inner struggle performed by his wife Patricia Delgado, former Miami City Ballet principal. Delgado, neatly clad in in an all-black jumpsuit, danced the unsettling solo that began as she sat on a chair hugging herself. The posture, colored by the roiling tones stirring from the keyboard, suggested a tortured soul yearning to break free. Trying to activate and leave the safety (or prison) of her chair, Delgado reached her arms outward, but then retreated. She rolled off the chair to fully extend her body away from it, only to return to her huddled position on the chair. She repeated her attempt. This time, as the frenzied musical repetitions gave way to bombastic chords, Delgado also let loose─circling her leg over the chair in a motion of conquest. In a daring outburst of big movement, she asserted herself into open space, but was overcome by a bout of nervous gesturing of arms around her face. Her inner battle continued as she exploded with a series of expansive leg lifts and turning leaps. But in the end, Delgado returned to the chair, lay down on the floor, and pulled the prop over her head.

Given Lucinda Childs history of landmark collaborations with Philip Glass since the 1970s─ “Einstein on the Beach,” “Dance,” and “Akhnaten”─I naturally had some expectations of seeing  her characteristic complex patterning of repeated, abstract, stripped-down ballet movements. Childs’ choreographed response to Etude #18 was a composition of masterful restraint, in which she took her essential movement vocabulary and played with the relational partnering of two dancers. A touching narrative evolved from the mix of classical partnering, moments of unison, and other interactive positioning of the two dancing bodies (leading, following, switching roles, entwining, counterbalancing). The duet’s formal simplicity, performed with ease and elegance by dancers Caitlin Scranton (soloist from the Lucinda Childs Dance Company) and Kyle Gerry matched the poignance of the gently hopeful chord progressions played by pianist Anton Batagov.

Caitlin Scranton and Kyle Gerry perform Etude #18 by Lucinda Childs. Photograph by Jack Baran

Renowned for her interpretations of Glass’s works for piano, pianist Maki Namekawa presented a dramatic visual image draped in a voluminous, white, sashed gown. She was spellbinding as she powered her way through Etude #7 with its impassioned ascending spirals. As she brought the work to its quiet, stately conclusion, Chanon Judson, co-artistic director of the acclaimed Urban Bush Women, took her place onstage. Wearing an aqua-green silk gown, she offered a distinctly personal response to Etude #11, also played by Namekawa. Judson stood erect like a priestess equal to the grandeur of the music that would enter her body in a kind of spiritual union. The music appeared to wash through her sending ripples and starts through every isolated body part like a powerful current. Judson slid to the floor treading her legs in the air as the swell of climbing broken chords created a sonic watery paradise for her total immersion. In an expression of sheer joy, she stood leaning back and throwing her arms upward in awe as a smile overtook her face. Judson turned to stand with her back to the audience until the rumble of chords filled her to satisfaction and she sauntered off stage.

Chanon Judson of Urban Bush Women dances to Philip Glass’ Etude #7. Photograph by Jack Baran

Namekawa concluded the program playing Glass Etude #20 with its pensive tones of nostalgia gently fading into quiet surrender. The two hours of perfect moments were sealed with nature’s kiss as the setting sun bathed the tufts of clouds in magical, opalescent light.