Glass #2: Study This

That the creation of a performing arts series is an art in itself was demonstrated last night during the performance of the complete set of piano études by Philip Glass, part of the Glass at 80 Festival, ongoing at Carolina Performing Arts. The 20 études were performed by 10 fine pianists, starting with Glass himself, in the beautifully renovated 450-seat Moeser Auditorium in Hill Hall, for which this event constituted a kind of grand opening (although it had been previously blessed by a dance–more on that later). As the audience filled the hall, we saw the gleaming grand piano center front, with bench–and nine more benches in a line upstage. Each bench had already been adjusted for the pianist who would use it. It was a wonderful visual.

Composed over a period of years (1991-2012) during which Glass made many larger pieces of music, the études in a way comprise a sketchbook of the composer’s thinking, and–although the analogy is not exact–the performance resembled a well-chosen art exhibition of artistically related meditations on a single subject by a master.

Music is, obviously, different from visual art in that it is not copied or referred to, but interpreted when taken up by a musician not the composer. Each player’s unique touch, style and essential personality makes something subtly different from a score. It would’ve been no fun to have 10 people play the precisely the same music, but having them each play a segment of the series worked beautifully to show how much interpretation can range, even in the performance of music by a living composer who is right there in the room. But hearing the entire sequence in one concert played by such different personalities (their biographies tell of their work and passion and achievements–on the website) was fantastic also because it made so many of Glass’s concerns clear–not just the crystalline patterns within the modules, or the patterns grown like crystals from the modules, or the emotional tone of particular chords and notes and melodic lines, or the effect of tempi, or color and texture in sound, but issues of oppositional balance; density and space; mass and ethereality; opacity and sheerness, and the layers in between.

What can I say? Hearing mature Glass play younger Glass was very wonderful. Everything else fell away, even the handsome room with great warm acoustics, and the other 449 extremely quiet and attentive listeners. Following him, for études numbers 3 and 4, came the youngest pianist in the program, Margaret Lynch, a junior at UNC-CH (a student of Clara Yang, who opened the program’s second half), who has taken every opportunity to work with the great pianists who have come to Carolina during her time there. Whereas numbers one and two had seemed composed of a play of complementary colors (chartreuse and burgundy), Lynch’s pair seemed made of shards of light changing places at a fast tempo. She performed beautifully, if with a high degree of tension beneath the polish and aplomb.

Mick Rossi, in a zippered black leather jacket, came next, and he had all the time in the world, drawing out the spaces between the dense, laden notes. Jenny Lin played numbers 7 and 8, leading us underground to caverns sparkling with mineral growths. Michael Riesman seemed to take us on an adventure with matter and anti-matter. That was just the first half.

After an intermission during which all were served with birthday cake and coffee, Clara Yang resumed the program with numbers 11 and 12, which struck me as very physical, with the music alternately wrestling and dancing and running wild with a sparkler and Yang keeping up without turning a hair. Aaron Diehl didn’t have any hair to turn, or it would have been jumping as he gave numbers 13 and 14 an almost stride blues interpretation. I was looking for him to kick over the bench any second. Timo Andres played the romantic daylights out of 15 and 16, so passionate and heart-stirring. This was the third time I’ve heard Andres, who is also a composer, and I find him very affecting–and not just because he’s tall and thin with barely controlled curls and wears neat-fitting suits and good leather shoes. He seems filled with longing and determination, which get out through his long fingers.

Anton Batagov had a regal and relaxed way with numbers 17 and 18, then Maki Namekawa swept on wearing hot pink pants and sandals under a gorgeous patterned robe, and finished off the series with a magisterial clarity. Her recording of the complete piano études went home with me from the merchandise table.

This was a very special event, brilliant in conception and beautifully carried out. I appreciated the true diversity of the cast, and the complete lack of cant about diversity. Complete in itself, the étude program also formed a vital facet of the entire Glass festival, which has been put together to serve a marvelous combination of artistic, pedagogic and liberal arts objectives while offering all sorts of excitement and enjoyment.

This kind of thing could give elitism a good name. It certainly puts a mighty glow on the oldest state university in the nation.

Tonight: the recreation of Lucinda Childs/Philip Glass/Sol LeWitt DANCE. Check the website for info on talks with Glass and the remaining performances.



Kirill Gerstein Piano Recital

The Duke Performances piano recital series continued in Baldwin Auditorium Nov. 9, with Kirill Gerstein playing a well-considered program that began delightfully and progressed toward the sublime. Gerstein’s warm sound, his joyous, jazz-inflected explorations and unguarded emotionality–as well as his thundering power and silken delicacy–made this one of the most satisfying piano concerts of my experience.

Kirill Gerstein. Photo: Marco Borggreve.

Kirill Gerstein.
Photo: Marco Borggreve.

Gerstein began with a late piano work by Josef Hadyn, the Variations in F Minor, Hob. XVII: 6, from 1793, a piece whose emotions are barely controlled by its clever interlacing musical structures. The image that came to mind was that of a dark red briar rose restrained by the delicate tendrils of a twining clematis vine with its froth of pale flowers. The minor theme shaded from melancholy to grief, near the end pulsing with rhapsodic sorrow; the major theme with its many trilling decorations on a calm orderly trellis brings us back to acceptance and peace, if not joy.

That Gerstein excels in generating imagery from sound was confirmed by his performance of Robert Schuman’s fantastic Carnaval, Little Scenes on Four Notes, op. 9, from 1834. The twenty short tone-pictures and dances that make up Carnaval are all over the map, but generally are quite animated. By the end of the final “March des ‘Davidbündler’ contre les Philistines,” I felt I’d spent an evening drinking in the sights at a marvelous fair amid crowds of Commedia characters, artists, waltzing lovers and fast-moving butterflies, all resplendent with color. Some of the sections are well known, but I’d never heard the piece performed entire–it is thrilling. Section 11, “Chopin” (Agitato) provided a connecting point to the program’s first work after intermission.

Old Friend, by Timo Andres (b. 1985) received its world premiere with, strangely, no fanfare. The old friend of its title is Chopin’s Scherzo No. 3. Andres, commissioned by the Gilmore Piano Foundation, wrote it for Gerstein (who won the Gilmore Artist Award in 2010). Although it contains what Andres calls “the skeletal melody” from the Chopin work (see his blog for his own writing about the writing of Old Friend), the main impression received from first hearing is that of  sizzling energies following their own courses–like the the motions of  particles within an atom. It would clearly take a virtuoso to play this. It begins with right and left hands moving towards each other from the extreme ends of the keyboard, but then they must cross and re-cross, the sounds tangling and re-ordering themselves. Speeding and slowing, clashing and harmonizing, the music tumbles along in increasing complexity, before spreading out like a quiet little wave. The piece is not very long, but you come out of it feeling like you’ve journeyed across the galaxy and back.

So, after that abstract adventure, we go to Pictures at an Exhibition, the grand 1874 work by Modest Mussorgsky, which is about as pictorial as music can get. In the spring of that year, Mussorgsky had helped organize a show of works by his late friend, Victor Hartmann (see images of the pictures here); he then composed a musical record of the experience of seeing them in exhibition. There are ten pictures, and the promenade that opens the work repeats three times between groups of paintings, and is reprised in the finale, “The Great Gate of Kiev.” I’ve listened to this music so often that I can hardly go to a museum without hearing it as I traverse the galleries, and I’ve heard it performed more than once (most recently by Leif Ove Andsnes), but I’ve never seen the pictures with such clarity and color. They were so full of life! I think Gerstein’s jazz training gives his interpretation a vivacity that other versions lack (this holds for the Schumann piece as well). This liveliness was particularly notable where it is most needed, in (5) “Ballet of the Chicks in their Shells;” (7) “Limoges: The Marketplace;” and (9) “Baba Yaga.” The wild energy of the witch with her crazy cackling gives way to the rich large sounds that build the “Great Gate of Kiev,” and the whole exhibition winds up with resonant grandeur.

I didn’t think there could be an encore after that, but following repeated ovations, Gerstein returned to the piano and gave us an exquisite goodnight: Rachmaninoff’s Melodie Op.3 No.3. So lovely. We will hope for a Rachmaninoff recording, and a return engagement at Duke by this pianist of prodigious technique and passionate expression.

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