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Philip Glass – Union Chapel, London 15/12/12

18 December 2012, 10:40 | Written by El Hunt

Photograph by Jason Williamson

Philip Glass, the program points out, is such an iconic composer that he gets to extend his birthday celebrations. The Queen gets two birthdays, after all, and Philip Glass is royalty of the musical sort. We’re here tonight for Philip Glass at 75, this year’s final knees-up. Candles twinkle overhead in The Union Chapel, and rose-hued lights illuminate the huge pulpit onstage. The chapel has raised balconies with yet more pews crammed into every available nook and cranny. The two-tier set-up gives the effect of being totally enveloped. It feels warm. This venue is so beautiful and special that you could probably put, say, a small primate in a sheepskin jacket up there in front of the pulpit, and it would still sap some form of transcendence from its surroundings. So put Philip Glass and his ensemble of multi-instrumentalists on stage instead, then, and the results are breathtaking from the first note.

Once we’ve got the hang of classical concert etiquette – cough only at your peril, never applaud between movements, and prepare to be glared at for whistling or whooping – we quickly settle down into a stunning retrospective of Philip Glass’ extensive and hugely successful career. Glass lets the music do the talking most of time, but occasionally leaves his keyboard to introduce pieces. He is softly spoken and quietly amusing; where he really seems to unleash and animate is back behind the keys.

Philip Glass is perhaps most famous for 1982’s Glassworks, his ‘walkman friendly’ composition, and indeed also his best selling work to date. As Glass plays three pieces from the sextet, the chapels’ acoustics are incredible, as is the music on show. The stunning horns of ‘Floe’ descend into synthesiser-led cacophony, and the repetitive engines of ‘Façades’ gently propel along a light, colourful melody like streamers rippling through a breeze. Glass’ modulating formulas and arpeggios are soothingly cyclic, and by the end of the Glassworks section, the whole chapel is in a trance.

‘Raising The Sail’ from The Truman Show is also truly beautiful, with heavenly melodies that spiral upwards towards the sky-high ceiling. Glass also plays ‘The Grid’ from his film score for Koyaanisqatsi, and beyond the breathtaking music, it is a display of Glass’ versatility. South Park took the mickey out of him once, immortalising him in popular culture as a sullen looking man who hits the same note on his piano over and over again. Obviously that jibe at minimalism is a wild exaggeration – the important thing is that Philip Glass is such an iconic and well-known composer that he is satirised on South Park in the first place. He writes scores for films, actual albums that attempt to brush pop with classical. You don’t have to be a classical enthusiast to understand Philip Glass. You just need to love music.

Philip Glass leaves the stage to rapturous applause. We hastily remember to stifle our uncouth cheering, opting to join the standing ovation instead. Glass returns for an encore of ‘Spaceship’ from Einstein on the Beach. We needn’t have worried because the whole chapel starts cheering at top volume and stamping their feet. There is no etiquette here at all. The audience is as diverse as Philip Glass’ career, older fans in tweed suits and jazzy socks, children, ruffians like ourselves. As the mad celebrations continue, the ensemble return to take their bows a total of four times, and they are all beaming. On 31 January 2013, Philip Glass will turn 76 and we hope to god he throws another party like this.

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