Serving as a one-off fundraiser for Big Sur’s Henry Miller Library, minimalist legend Philip Glass shared the stage Monday evening with idiosyncratic folk-harpist Joanna Newsom. Both artists, though separated in age by over four decades, share a similarly uncompromising approach to musical composition — which, for each, has inspired both intense devotion and alienation among fans and skeptics alike. Glass, through his pioneering early minimalist work, operatic masterpieces and later film scores holds a unique position as the most recognizable and, arguably, most influential classical composer living today. His deep ties to both Big Sur and The Miller library, helped to inspire and develop this unique benefit.
Magnus Toren, director of the Miller Library, introduced the performers with a rambling yet utterly charming speech that involved a slew of wry remarks, a lengthy folk song and a compelling characterization of the institution and its communal purpose. Glass then took to the stage, flanked by Newsom and his violinist protégé Tim Fain. The trio, communicating with visual cues, opened with the folk-inspired “France,” from Glass’ 1992 theatrical work “The Screens.” The simple, plodding piano and harp arrangement left ample room for Fain’s violin embellishments.
Throughout the performance, the three musicians took turns playing in various configurations, though the full trio arrangements were limited to just a couple of Glass compositions (“France” “The Orchard”). Glass followed Newsom’s earnestly sung “Sadie,” with “Metamorphosis 2,” a moody, undulating piano solo delivered with great sensitivity and attention to dynamic detail. After a trio reading of “The Orchard,” Fain delivered a violin solo composed by Glass entitled “Partita.” In the earlier works, Fain served somewhat of a supporting role, playing against the lead of the other two musicians. For “Partita,” Fain opened up, revealing his magnificent skills as an interpreter, oscillating between minor-key melodic themes and rapid-fire arpeggios.
The concert was then bisected by another brief speech by Toren, after which Newsom emerged for a solo rendition of “Sawdust & Diamonds.” Up to this point the program had been an adequate, if slight showcase for each artist, but “Diamonds” changed everything. The elliptical, ten-minute tone poem was played with riveting focus and trembling beauty. Newsom’s voice rose and fell against her polyrhythmic harp patterns as she spun an allegorical fantasia with a set of lyrics full of yearning and unvarnished emotion.
Fain returned to the stage to join Newsom in a duo performance of Glass’s “The French Lieutenant,” and stunning pair of Glass compositions (“Wichita Vortex Sutra” “Pendulum”) and an untitled new song by Newsom completed the main portion of the set.
Newsom’s new composition affixed a beautiful and incredibly complex harp arrangement to a set of lyrics that utilized the metaphor of deep-sea pearl divers to symbolize romantic longing and exploration.
For the encore, Glass took the stage first, performing the fittingly-titled “Closing,” an emotive, understated work from his 1982 album “Glassworks.” Fain followed with a virtuosic reading of Glass’s “Knee Play 2” from the opera “Einstein On The Beach.” Simply put, Fain’s playing was transcendent; the sheer difficulty of the piece, combined with his flawless execution left the most indelible impression from the entire evening. An awestruck Newsom followed, prefacing her performance of “On A Good Day” with a humble admiration for the violinist.