It used to be notable if a composer wasn’t also a performer. Now, after years of composers being generally regarded as a breed apart, the composer-performer is increasingly coming back into his — or her — own.
Timo Andres, 29, is a tall, bespectacled pianist who projects the air of a polite British schoolboy (although he’s not British) while playing a leading role on the alt-classical scene. Andres, who lives in Brooklyn, is associated with a couple of contemporary-music groups such as the American Contemporary Music Ensemble; he won huge critical acclaim for his debut album, “Shy and Mighty”; he has commissions from a host of ensembles and performers (Jonathan Biss, the Los Angeles Philharmonic); and he performs other composers’ music.
When I heard he was giving a recital at the Phillips Collection on Sunday afternoon, I expected it to be along the lines of a composer portrait. But not so. These days, his program would have been at home on any mainstream presenter’s series — a piece of his own, followed by works by Franz Schubert and Philip Glass.
Andres began the concert with “At the River,” which he also performed when he played with Gabriel Kahane at the Library of Congress in 2013. It offers flowing yet not-quite-repetitive patterns out of which a picture begins to emerge, like a Chuck Close portrait made of thumb prints. The outlines here are of the spiritual “Shall We Gather At the River,” first evoked and then gradually refracted until the waterfall of notes has all but washed it away. The piece is an homage to tradition and the past, not only because it’s based on a spiritual, but also because it nods to other American composers, such as Charles Ives, who deconstructed the same music — an American lineage of creative reinterpretation.
This proved an apt setup to the rest of the program, which continued the dialogue between old and new: Three Schubert impromptus were answered with three etudes by Glass. That the two composers share a birthday is fact (it’s Jan. 31). That they also share a sensibility, however, is Andres’s opinion, for which he made a credible argument.
Saying that the pieces seemed to be “written by the same person, 200 years apart,” Andres asked the audience’s permission to perform all six without a break. If Glass didn’t sound exactly like Schubert, he also didn’t sound like the repetitive minimalist of stereotype, and it was striking how expressive all the music was and how much these two composers had to say to each other.
Classical concerts can have a hothouse air: exquisite music, carefully presented. Andres, however, approached these works less gingerly, as if they were part of a living dialogue. His Schubert was strong, vivid and gentle, with distinctive little rubati tugging at the main theme of the A-flat impromptu (the best known of the three he played) and moments of near stridency in the C Minor one.
As for Glass, his 14th etude, played after Schubert’s F Minor impromptu, seemed so richly tonal, with recurring curlicues of melody, that it sounded nearly Romantic. Andres naturally sought out points of communality, answering Schubert’s arpeggios in the A-flat impromptu with Glass’s in the harmonically wilder, jazz-tinged 16th etude that followed it.
The afternoon concluded with Glass’s 20th etude, a study in fragmentation interrupted by big pauses, as if the composer were constantly trying to enter a bygone world and constantly having to rethink his approach. It was a double portrait of a composer in conversation with the past — Glass, but also Andres, bringing his music to life.