Philip Glass Makes You Look Old
The classical music of 75-year-old Philip Glass occupies an unlikely place in pop culture. It still attracts the same age group it did when the composer first performed his minimalist works more than 40 years ago.
This audience is ever present for the renowned artist's recent performance at the Kaufman Center for the Performing Arts, Kansas City's futuristically handsome new complex whose scallop-like frame of steel, concrete and glass curves elegantly to join Downtown's eclectic skyline. Here, a young set of cool, bespectacled 20-somethings have made a collective effort to shower, show up and Instagram the sunset.
After all classical music performances provide ample reason to unironically wear fur and suspenders. And, like, everyone they know is here.
But the flock isn't just here to be seen. This migration of Kansas City's youthful urban bestiary towards the theater has plenty to do with Philip Glass's extraordinary ability to relate through compositions that seem to get better with age. At a time when classical music struggles to attract young audiences, Glass continues to be one of the kids.
It helps that Glass exudes no notice of his magnetizing pull. It helps that he breaks rules. It helps that Ira Glass is his relative. And it helps that despite his age, Philip Glass does not seem old. If you were to close your eyes and listen to him speak -- without taking note of the practiced hands that sometimes shake, or his slumped shoulders, or his face that has gracefully, handsomely melted into wrinkled crevices -- you would think he sounded 30 years his junior.
Besides the performance itself, the most striking part of this evening is precisely the fact that the under-30s outnumber typical classical concert patrons in swaths (although both types play victim to purple dye jobs). These kids, myself included, have skipped out on a night of playing darts and drinking Schlitz at dive bars to pay upwards of $50 dollars to sit quietly and watch Philip Glass play music. It's a rare sign of respect, considering this is the perpetually broke crowd that eternally defers on student loan repayments and complains about the price of tickets to a Radiohead show.
The composer, whom many laud with the same acclaim as centuries-dead artists, doesn't parade around with wisdom to impart. Instead he sinks swiftly, alone, into the hall's Steinway concert grand and plays his music.
There are no frills. Glass's performances posses the necessary bones and organs to function -- to be quintessentially Glass: those even-but-frantic minor arpeggios, accented by the sparse, right-over-left hand motif of a single bass note. There is, however, something else. Something un-pin-pointable. Hearing Glass perform makes you believe he unknowingly possesses the answers to universal secrets.
For his young fanbase, watching Glass in action closes the gap between the present -- whose artistic atmosphere comprises reality TV-productions of project runways, idols and top artists -- and the ghosts of creative geniuses past: When the composer describes his collaboration with beat poet Allen Ginsberg on the opera Hydrogen Jukebox, we lean in close and imagine this story was meant for us and us alone. Glass then introduces Wichita Vortex Sutra, a poem Ginsberg wrote during a 60-mile journey between Wichita and El Dorado, Kansas. Glass performs the piano part alongside the tape Ginsberg recorded long ago when he could not join the composer on tour. The piece begins with a majestic chord progression that isn't quite Glass's signature minor. Eventually the piano's palpitant voice meets Ginsberg's for an eight-minute and 60-mile clamor of volume and valor and strength. I can't shake the impossible feeling that Ginsberg is in the back of the theatre.
Still, Glass knows there's no point in only sharing the stage with Ginsberg's vocal totem. "How lucky we are to be among such talented young artists," he says and looks toward the wings to welcome Tim Fain on-stage. Glass quietly slips out of sight to stage left, leaving the prodigal violinist alone to perform a piece written by the composer for Fain. The audience's previously jubilant applause turns hesitant, as if to telepathically say, "Wait, don't go! We didn't pay to watch this guy play without you." But when Fain conjures the haunting Partita from his instrument, we hear Glass in every note.