A Pianist Turns the Tables on a Portrait Painter
excerpt from The New York Times
By Allan Kozinn
Commissioned musical works are fairly commonplace these days. They are the engines through which new works begin the long march into the repertory or oblivion, and through which grant money is dispersed among composers. And typically, performers slip them into programs unobtrusively, apparently hoping that listeners who are interested will know about them and that listeners who cannot bear new music won't notice.
Bruce Levingston, a pianist who is best known as an interpreter of contemporary music, has turned that approach on its head. Although his recital at Alice Tully Hall on Monday evening was devoted mostly to standard repertory, his publicity focused mainly on the premiere of a Philip Glass piece, "A Musical Portrait of Chuck Close." As anyone who has followed Mr. Glass's career knows, Mr. Close's portraits of Mr. Glass, painted from a diced 1969 photograph, have become iconic images of the composer, and indeed, four versions - "Phil I," "Phil II," "Phil III" and "Phil Manipulated" (all from 1982) - were hung behind velvet ropes in the hall's main foyer.... It was enough to draw a large audience, which gave Mr. Glass's work a standing ovation.
The rest was a thoughtful program built around the theme of portraiture. Preceding Mr. Glass's piece were Brahms's Ballade in D minor (Op. 10, No. 1), which portrays the main character in a patricidal Scottish poem; two movements from Messiaen's "Vingt Regards sur l'Enfant-Jésus"; and the Schumann, which depicts the E. T. A. Hoffmann character Kreisler (and his cat). And after the Glass, Mr. Levingston offered Debussy's portraits of the water sprite Ondine, and "The Girl With the Flaxen Hair" as well as Liszt's "Mephisto Waltz" No. 1.
The Glass was notably less portraitlike than its companions. "Mephisto" and "Ondine" undeniably paint portraits. Mr. Glass's work is more a tip of the hat. But it offered a glimpse of something new from Mr. Glass, or at least its first movement did. In both movements Mr. Glass draws on his stock figures, including scales and undulating minor thirds, and a few frequently used chord progressions. But in the first movement, which is meant to suggest Mr. Close in the early 1960's, when Mr. Glass met him, those elements are dressed in uncharacteristic dissonances, and they move briskly among figures. The second movement, meant to portray the mature Mr. Close, is more conventionally diatonic and repetitive.
The Messiaen and Debussy works, played with a delicate touch and painted in subtle hues, were nearly as vibrant.... Mr. Levingston added a graceful account of a Chopin nocturne as an encore.