The Brooklyn-based pianist Simone Dinnerstein has a special connection with Philip Glass. He wrote his Piano Concerto No. 3 for her in 2017, and she spent last year touring it around the world. On Sunday at National Sawdust in Williamsburg, in the first installment of Patrick Zimmerli’s “Now and Then” concert series, Dinnerstein staged a quiet revolution: she hopes to change the way we hear the “minimalist” Glass (b. 1937) by juxtaposing a selection of his solo piano works with four Impromptus (Op. 90) by Franz Schubert (1797–1828), one of his little-acknowledged Romantic influences.
Glass’s frequent use of repetition to drive his music has given him a reputation as a minimalist that has persisted long after he rejected the movement for a more lyrical style in the mid-1970s.
The first piece on the program, Metamorphosis I, is pure, crystalline Glass. He begins on a minor triad and stays there for most of the piece, seldom varying the harmonic structure by more than a single note and maintaining identical rhythms for entire sections. Glass’s frequent use of repetition to drive his music has given him a reputation as a minimalist that has persisted long after he rejected the movement for a more lyrical style in the mid-1970s. Today, he calls himself simply a composer who writes “music with repetitive structures.” Played poorly, this repetition can be coma-inducing; from Dinnerstein, it was as meditative as looking out at a still lake and watching ripples distort the edges of reflected clouds (or the tonic chord, if you’re into that kind of thing).
The first chords of Schubert’s Impromptu in C minor were a revelation for the way they moved seamlessly from Glass’s supposedly radical contemporary work. Played back-to-back, the likeness between the two composers was immediately apparent: Schubert begins with a heavily chordal opening section and develops the melody slowly and subtly, with gradual harmonic progression and the use of long series of chords, scales, and other “textural” elements often used for accompaniment or embellishment. This was typical of Schubert: Robert Schumann said the melodic phrases in his “Great” Symphony No. 9 in C Major, like his other compositions, ran to “heavenly lengths.”
Glass’s Étude No. 6, in turn, flowed naturally from the Impromptu, its ostinato chords and hemiolas accelerating from Schubert’s slower tempo like a stream entering rapids. This organic movement is carefully cultivated: Dinnerstein spent two years developing what she calls a “sort of suite” after noticing similarities in the two composers’ composition styles, vocally influenced writing, and musical personalities. (She performed only the first half of the program on Sunday, followed by a post-concert interview.)
Surprisingly, Dinnerstein noticed this musical resemblance before Glass himself did. In 2016, she played the full program for Glass at his home. Afterward, he began pulling his manuscripts off his shelves, pointing at passages and exclaiming, “This is Schubert! And this, too!”
Glass’s father, Benjamin, was the owner of a record store in Baltimore and a classical music enthusiast whose favorite composer was Schubert. Although Dinnerstein noted that Glass seldom mentions the composer in his recent memoir, Words Without Music, he must have heard plenty of Schubert from the records his father listened to late into the evenings.
In 2016, Dinnerstein played the full program for Glass at his home. Afterward, he began pulling his manuscripts off his shelves, pointing at passages and exclaiming, “This is Schubert! And this, too!”
Étude No. 16 is Glass at his most Romantic. It has the most recognizable “melody” of the suite: a series of ascending thirds in groups of three, featuring colorful ornamentation that is almost out of character in its extrovertedness. But it’s the rhythm that gives the piece its Glass-y shine: written in 7/8 time, it moves in a swaying, almost circular motion, phrase by phrase instead of measure by measure.
In this Étude and in the two final Impromptus, Dinnerstein displayed a technical mastery and sympathetic understanding of these two composers that revealed the brilliance of her arrangement of the suite. Certainly, it takes deft fingerwork and a sensitive ear to keep track of Glass’s variations and Schubert’s melodies through the masses of chords and scales, let alone to shape them. Dinnerstein’s dynamics create a sense of roundness; the volume does not so much increase or decrease as it crests, as if each musical phrase is a wave. (Notably, it was Dinnerstein’s self-financed recording of Bach’s Goldberg Variations, those monuments of technical difficulty, that rocketed her to the top of the classical music charts in 2007.)
These minutiae are all the more important because misunderstandings of Glass’s music have often been technical and interpretive ones. Glass works have often been called “motoric” for their repetitions: all bland theme and no variation. But Dinnerstein said she finds Glass’s music “extremely Romantic,” especially when he performs it. Her Glass, too, is the opposite of motoric: he is a Romantic so in love with the notes themselves that he allows the subtle variations of dynamics and phrasing to turn a single chord into a song.
At times, Dinnerstein expresses this better than Glass does himself in his recordings. Glass’s Mad Rush, which she played as an encore, is evocative of a walk in the park on a quiet February morning, interrupted suddenly by a rush of notes like a flock of birds startled from a nearby tree. With its four almost identical “verse” and “refrain” repetitions, the piece can seem merely cyclical, like walking around the same gray block again and again—or it can be transcendent, the picture of introspection interrupted by unexpected vision. With Dinnerstein, it was the latter.
The program is exhausting to play, Dinnerstein said. Both Glass’s and Schubert’s works have an almost impenetrable inwardness, an intense loneliness, and a sense of almost endless depths to their quiet sections. “But then there are these outbursts that are extremely heated and extreme,” Dinnerstein said. “That’s a huge place to go emotionally.”
“I call it ‘winter writing,’ ” she said.
A young man in the row behind me had another way of putting it. He told his friend about Glass’s theory that there are two kinds of composers: some are dogs and some are cats. “I think Schubert is a cat,” he said. “I’m pretty sure.”
All that inwardness, the patient hunt for the purity of sound and feeling: Glass, too.