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Engaging the audience with words and music

Philip Glass, Etudes and work for solo piano, January 18, 2004

The Vancouver Sun

by David Gordon Duke

Composers are rarely their own best interpreters, but they can be counted on to demonstrate to their audience what really matters in a given piece.

American composer Philip Glass is no exception: As he told me a few days ago in a phone interview, the piano has always been important to him, but he’s anything but a virtuoso. Rising to the instrument’s challenges has been a lifelong concern.

That, plus Glass’ enthusiasm for connecting with audiences, motivated Sunday’s evening of music for solo keyboard and commentary at UBC’s Chan Centre. Though works were announced casually from the platform, the recital was in fact tightly structured: An opening prelude, an integrated set of piano works of sonata length, eight of his new etudes, and some written-in encores.

The program began with an intrada, Mad Rush (1979), written to preface the appearance of the Dalai Lama in New York’s cavernous Cathedral of St. John the Divine. Glass let the audience in on a secret known to centuries of church musicians: ceremonies don’t always run like clockwork; musicians need to work the crowd and keep up appearances. Mad Rush works rather well as concert starter, evoking both a feeling of occasion and an underlying expectancy; then (after we adjust to Glass’ own sense of time and pacing) there’s a gratifying sense of arrival and a magical, portentous invocation of even better things to come.

Four of Glass’ Metamorphoses (1989) make a substantial linked set of pieces that explore fussy surface patterns while a very slow harmonic journey provides underlying logic. If their harmonic vocabulary never extends beyond that used in late Schubert, the intricacy of their textures – characterized by wisps of melody emerging from pulsing rhythmic riffs gives them mystery and distinction. Glass plays with a composer’s sense of rubato; the piano is lightly amplified. Liberal use of pedal allows him to layer and dissolve his materials in and out of focus.

While doubtless many of the sold-out crowd at the Chan were there to hear old favourites, Glass’ ongoing series of Etudes provided the most extraordinary music of the evening. In these Glass turns to the traditional idea of “problem” pieces exploring technical and musical ideas. The time scale of the Etudes is much more concentrated than the earlier compositions, making them seem aphoristic, even condensed.

Not all are of the same standard: in Nos. 5 and 6 Glass falls back on hackneyed virtuoso conventions in his quest for drama. But even in part (he plans to write 20 in all) the set is exciting: the recent thoughts and ideas of a still-evolving creative personality. The sumptuous lyricism of the second and the bright exuberance of the last were particular highlights – though, as in the Metamorphoses, there were occasions where the difficulties of the music exceeded Glass’ pianistic technique.

Shorter pieces rounded out the evening, including Wichita Vortex Sutra (1988), originally the accompaniment to an Allen Ginsberg anti-war rant, with sly Americanisms (rather like a stoned Virgil Thomson), and a lyrical nocturne from the incidental music to Jean Genet’s The Screens.

Glass is an engaging speaker: using no obvious rhetoric, he talks to hundreds the same way he would to one or two. Whatever anyone may think of his work, it’s not naive – and neither is he. One leaves the concert convinced that, like composers as different as Varese or Satie, Glass simply has to write his own music in his own way.

Tue Jan 20, 2004