Monday, March 3, 2008

Philip Glass Falls for $650,000 Cello, Discovers His Inner Bach

Interview by Robert Hilferty

Feb. 29 (Bloomberg) -- ``This piece can bring me the recognition that I'm actually part of an older tradition,'' Philip Glass said recently, perched on a sofa in his town house in New York's East Village. ``I've been associated with the downtown, needle-stuck-in-the-groove school for a long time. We're about to break a new barrier -- the barrier of the classical-music world.

``Isn't that funny?''

The 71-year-old composer was talking about his ``Songs and Poems'' for solo cello, which has just been released on CD. It may be his most expressive piece. The plaintive, seven-movement work, introspective yet expansive, could pass for a long lost Bach cello suite. It's Baroque in flavor, yet it's the first major solo cello work of the 21st century.

Glass's head is still as rich with curls as in Chuck Close's famous 1969 portrait. The 40-year-old cellist Wendy Sutter -- svelte, brunette -- sat on the sofa next to him.

After recording Glass's score for the 2006 film ``Chaotic Harmony,'' Sutter had asked him to recast the music -- originally for cello and voice -- for solo cello. Within hours of the request, she received a six-minute chaconne, which was to become the fifth movement.

``It was pretty magnificent,'' Sutter said. Before a week had passed she received the balance, most of it original, not music recycled from the score.

``I approached it as if I were doing a Bach suite,'' she continued. As the recording reveals, her phrasing and her agility with the music's counterpoint could make Yo-Yo Ma envious.

Cracked Cello

But last February, a week before she was set to premiere the work at Manhattan's Baryshnikov Arts Center, she was on tour in Europe when her cello had an accident and sustained two cracks. Back in New York she rushed to the rare-instrument firm of Morel & Gradoux-Matt, which loaned her the so-called Ex Vatican.

It was love at first sight.

``The cello is the third partner in this piece,'' Glass said, taking the richly resonant instrument out of its case. Built in 1620 by Nicolo Amati, it began life as a viola da gamba. Amati's prize student, Antonio Stradivari, transformed it into the bigger, more modern instrument, which then spent a century participating in performances in the Sistine Chapel.

Painted Angels

The 19th-century French luthier Georges Chanot put the finishing touches on the expansion, then covered his tracks with gorgeous filigree and paintings of two angels with tambourine and harp. The instrument has been used by a few cellists in orchestras (even, for a time, the New York Philharmonic), but it has never been associated with a famous virtuoso. Sutter sees an opening.

``It has an incredible bass end,'' she observed. ``It also has a bright sound and can carry in a hall of 3,000 people. It's like driving a Ferrari.''

``To think,'' Glass said, ``400 years later! There's some kind of Dracula thing going on with this cello of eternal youth. It's always ready to play a new piece.''

Its allure has proven so irresistible to him that he's contemplating two more works for Sutter to perform on it. But the instrument had a high price: $650,000.

Glass has formed a corporation of 10 shares to purchase it. Half the shares have been sold; Glass bought one himself. ``It's like owning part of a company,'' he said. ``They aren't making more of these. The value has got to go up.''

As for ``Songs and Poems,'' he admitted that ``there's a radiance to this kind of piece,'' produced so quickly and passionately -- something that's happened only three or four times in his career.

You could also call it the issue of the romance that has grown out of a musical collaboration. ``When I saw the fifth movement,'' Sutter recalled, smiling, ``that was my first indication that Philip's feelings were moving in a different direction. It was like getting a love letter.''

Glass smiled back at her. ``What's touching is when the world of art and our core emotions blend together. That's what we all yearn for,'' he said. ``The heart is where it's at.''

``Songs and Poems'' for solo cello is on the Orange Mountain Music label. Sutter performs the piece on March 1 at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art ( ) and on March 2 at Campbell Hall in Santa Barbara, California ( ).

(Robert Hilferty is a critic for Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

To contact the writer of this story: Robert Hilferty in New York at .

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