“Adam’s the brother I never had. Well, whoops, I do have a brother,” virtuoso contemporary pianist Jenny Lin said of other virtuoso contemporary pianist Adam Tendler, as both collapsed into laughs over Zoom. “I’m a different kind of brother!” Tendler replied. The lovely, easygoing rapport between the two came tumbling out of the screen, even thought they were a bit preoccupied—Lin was at home attending to her daughter as she joyously watched cartoons, and Tendler was preparing an evening of John Cage and Merce Cunningham pieces at Manhattan’s Baryshnikov Arts Center (with Mikhail himself dropping by to say hello).
Their very active performance schedules usually have these NYC-based keyboard wizards ping-ponging individually around the country, but they’re linking up on Sat/19 for “Philip Glass Mixtape,” a San Francisco Performances presentation at Herbst Theatre. The “Mixtape” celebrates the minimalist composer’s 85th birthday with selections from several of his eras, including “hits,” as Lin cheekily calls them, like 1979’s “Mad Rush” from his earlier career through 2017’s “Distant Figure,” with a couple “Etudes” and more in between—all played by Lin and Tendler together on stage in a continuous, sometimes back-and-forth interplay.
There’s a rather spooky origin story to how “Philip Glass Mixtape” came about. It begins in the mausoleum-like catacombs of Brooklyn’s Green-Wood Cemetery in 2019, where Lin and Tendler came together for a chill-inducing night-time performance of Liszt’s Harmonies poétiques et religieuses. (Touchingly, the pianists turned each other’s pages.) That feat inspired Lincoln Center Director of Music Programming Hanako Yamaguchi to put them together again for a free all-Glass program as part of the inaugural festival for the stunning Little Island arts center/floating park in Hudson River Park. From there, the idea of presenting a timeline-hopping version of Glass’s storied career emerged.
“The approach came to us of having two pianos across from each other, and having Jenny and I just knocking back Glass pieces rapid-fire,” Tendler said. “And that’s where the concept of a mixtape came from. No big fanfare or dramatic pauses between the pieces; we wanted it to be like a DJ set where we were playing off each others’ energy. That original program was short, but it worked really well, so we’ve expanded it for the San Francisco performance. We now have an A-side and a B-side to the Mixtape. We’ve added more pieces for two pianos, including a premiere arrangement for selections from Les Enfants Terrible from 1996, but we’re still also volleying back and forth other pieces.”
Arranging pieces for the performance brought further appreciation for the complexities of Glass’s work, which can seem simple to listeners, yet demands special, meditative focus from the performers. “The early works require a laser-like concentration,” Tendler said. “But in later works, he actually starts doing challenging things in the way we usually think of them, where he’s changing keys, and there are many really intricate passages. It shows how he’s always evolving even though the public perception of him is mainly around this one type of resonating sound.”
The two have deep histories with Glass. “For me, it was in high school when I encountered him—I was very into some of his hardcore early music,” Tendler said. “Stuff from Einstein on the Beach and earlier really spoke to me. It’s intense and relentless. I would drive around Vermont where I lived and blast Philip Glass! I was drawn to what he represented as an icon of the New York downtown scene, that whole legend of loft concert culture was really fascinating to me.”
Lin said of her own Glass experience, “I don’t know if people are aware of this, but 15-20 years ago it was not really possible for people to play Philip Glass publicly, to get a copy of his scores. There was a period when there was absolute control of his music. So when his Etudes started coming out [in 2012], very few of them at first, I asked for more, and they said no. It was not allowed.
“In 2014, all the stars lined up—I got a call, Philip Glass was looking for a pianist to play the complete etudes with him at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. I was like, ‘Oh!’ After that big concert, I started touring with him. I experienced Philip Glass in person for eight years, right up to COVID. I’m grateful, he changed my life. He’s so famous, but he’s still so generous and available.”
Tendler added, “I’ve only really crossed paths with him occasionally, but I remember one time I was playing his music outdoors at a concert, I think “Two Pages.” And he came up to me and said, ‘You’re a pianist, you know I’ve written some etudes?’ and I was like, ‘Yes, I’m aware’ [laughs]. And he said, ‘You should play them.’ I just thought it was so funny that this legendary composer is just as interested as any composer I’ve encountered in getting his music out there, and having people experience it and play it. It really speaks to how much passion he still has for what he does.”
PHILIP GLASS MIXTAPE presented by San Francisco Performances, 7:30pm, Herbst Theatre, SF. More info here.