It’s easy to take the Union Chapel for granted, to forget the extent to which live music in the capital would suffer if it were to disappear. Tucked away amongst a row of terraced housing, the late nineteenth-century church is revered by many as one the capital’s most significant venues, renowned for it’s sheltered intimacy. And while its intimacy remains one of the building’s defining characteristics (note those candles lining the balcony, or the cups of tea being brewed downstairs), it’s easy to forget about the grandeur of the place, especially when you consider it in the vertical. I’m no zealot, but when staring up at those vast gothic arches from the hospitable environment of the place at ground level, the octagonal room can quickly fill one with notions of religion, with simultaneous ideas of something all-powerful, and that feeling of comfort and familiarity that encourages a blind faith.
To many of tonight’s audience, it seems, it’s not completely inappropriate that we should be in a place of worship. This, the second of two concerts organised by the Barbican to celebrate the work of Philip Glass - now at the grand old age of 75 - takes the form of a forty-year retrospective of the pioneering minimalist composer’s music. Appearing as part of the Philip Glass Ensemble (comprised of four keyboards and woodwinds), the seven musicians perform excerpts from all manner of the Maryland-born composer’s work.
An early deviation from the programme means a performance of 'Music in Similar Motion', tonight finding its brother-in-kind in Parts 1 and 2 from 'Music in Twelve Parts'. Both are archetypal of Glass’ minimalist work, twisting the comfort of repetition into something intense and unrelenting, powerful bass organ notes proving the geocentric driving force around which the rest of the music fits in a constantly shifting aural jigsaw. It’s the sort of music that promotes a sort of unconscious listening - to fully understand the subtleties of this music requires more than a casual acquaintance with a recording - but what quickly becomes apparent is that when the nimble digits of those musicians on stage are working so hard, you feel almost guilty being sucked into such a latent state.
Elsewhere, Glass’ more lyrical turns appear in the form of ‘Raising the Sail’ from the immensely popular 1998 Peter Weir film 'The Truman Show', and three selections from the composer’s contribution to the CBS Masterworks label, 'Glassworks'. These works are a welcome respite between the unremitting vehemence of the others; while the sudden snap finish of the likes of 'Music in Twelve Parts' had felt like been slapped out of hypnosis, the feeling induced by these pieces is rather one of gentle meditation. A somewhat unexpected encore garners cheers from the assembled crowd as Glass (who’s been leaving his piano stool to introduce every piece of the evening) informs them that ‘Spaceship’ from his 1975 opera 'Einstein on the Beach', will round off the evening. At its flamboyant - almost virtuoso - close, the Chapel erupts in appreciation. Despite being hailed a key proponent of minimalism for what’s essentially his entire career, Glass’ musical vernacular is entirely unique, his free use of unceasing repetition, harmonic stasis and electronic components in the context of art music proving an important precursor of much of the electronic music that we surround ourselves with today.
Words by Sam Cleeve