Endless Invention in Mesmerizing Glass Piano Études

 United StatesUnited States  Philip Glass: Philip Glass, Maki Namekawa, and Timo Andres (pianos), presented by San Francisco Performances, Davies Symphony Hall, San Francisco. 2.3.2015 (HS)

Philip Glass: Piano Études (1994-2012)

At the age of 78, Philip Glass has become a unexpected rock star. An audience liberally stocked with fans in their 20s and 30s queued up around the block for tickets and filled the 3,700-seat Davies Symphony Hall for a recital Monday night of the minimalist composer’s 20 remarkable piano études. They were rewarded with much more than the hypnotic arpeggios Glass is famous for. Written over a span of nearly two decades, these works touch upon an  unexpectedly broad range of emotions by a composer constantly pushing the boundaries of his style.

 In nearly three hours, the études reveal the inner workings of composer who, in the concert hall, often dazzles with the muscular sounds of large ensembles and the rich colors of electronic instruments. Stripped down to the bare acoustic of a grand piano, Glass speaks more directly. Each étude, ranging from 4 minutes to more than 10, creates its own world in miniature. A kernel of a musical gesture—often a shifting harmony or melodic figure rather than a simple arpeggio, despite the composer’s reputation—gets layered with other elements. Tempos and time signatures shift. Harmonic progressions take a detour.

 Hearing all these études in one broad swoop reveals an arc of increasing compositional depth. Recurring ideas that populate his music get subtle reworkings. Signature harmonic gestures become more complex. Forms morph into ever more coherent plans. The early études, written originally to challenge and improve his own piano technique, become more expressive; by the end of the cycle, Glass was writing for pianists with technical ability far beyond his own.

 In taking this music on tour, Glass has been sharing the stage with a wide variety of pianists, often including some new to his music. On this occasion, three pianists divided the assignment more or less equally. Glass himself played Nos. 1, 2, 8, 9, 10 and 17. Timo Andres, himself a composer of some note, assayed 5 through 7 and 13 through 16. Maki Namekawa, who has performed much of Glass’s music around the world and recently recorded the entire set of études, played the remaining seven.

 The pianists quickly sorted themselves out into tiers. At 78, Glass no longer displayed the crisp precision that he wrote the early études to master. His playing on No. 1 and No. 2 focused more on setting a mood than achieving perfect articulation, and after hearing the others the limitations of his present technique became even more apparent. Andres showed better technical command, but being new to the music often seemed uncomfortable with interpretation. Namekawa, however, harnessed a formidable technique to create moment after moment of sheer magic. She has absorbed this music into her bones.

 Clad in a free-flowing flowered Japanese robe, Namekawa created a serene presence even before seating herself at the keyboard. She launched into the  syncopated, hard-driving No. 3 with the energy of Russian playing a Prokofiev sonata, then turned the circular ruminations of No. 4 into a flower unfurling in morning light. She opened the second half with a No. 11 that reveled in the contrast between pulsing arpeggios and a romantic, Rachmaninov-like grand melody that recurs in the right hand. She concluded the concert with a wistful, heart-tugging 10 minutes of introspection in the evanescent No. 20.

 Andres, in a business suit, caught the Negro spiritual essence in No. 5 that grew from a melodic gesture of a rising minor third, but in No. 6, missed the precision of the cimbalom-like repeated notes on the Slavic minor-key tune. His stretch of four études in the second half went by with little distinction among them, focusing instead on getting the elements in line.

 Jacketless, in a dapper black vest, Glass himself showed the greatest freedom of expression. As he made his way through Nos. 8-10 to conclude the first half, he allowed tempo and dynamics to ebb and flow, often in unexpected ways. He had fun with the pop-tune harmonic progressions in No. 8, blurred the lines of the syncopations in octaves in No. 9 and met the challenges of the rapid-fire rhythms of No. 10 without quite shining much light through the harmonic density.

 Technical quibbles such as these didn’t stop the audience from showering the composer with the warmest enthusiasm in the final bows. All that mattered was the endless succession of inventive musical ideas. They won the day.


Harvey Steiman




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