December 10, 2014
Each pianist gathered at BAM’s Howard Gillman Opera House to perform Philip Glass’s complete Etudes possesses idiomatic physicality, invigorating sound with visual expressions of musical exchanges from body to body through object. Nico Muhly’s shoulders climb on each chord, while Bruce Levingston floats out of his seat to keep up with crescendos and thickening textures. Glass keeps perfectly still, save the thick joints of his spindly fingers. An incidental rhythm of applause, music, and silence cycles among ten players, two etudes apiece. Ten benches line upstage, accommodating differences in proportion, small and large. Practicality aside, the image connotes the infinite spectrum of interpretative freedom at play.
Etudes were written by masters as technical puzzles for students’ solving. Chopin brought the form from the practice room to the stage; Glass brings them inward. Written as self-improvement strategies, he began missing notes, fumbling through quick harmonic shifts, and silencing one hand entirely until finding his bearings. He took repeats as second chances, repairing his errors. Glass’s playing reads as self-discourse through presentational curiosity, abandoning his early metronomic precision for resonant flurries that convey the same introspective spirit. One might ask what the following virtuosos had to learn from the studies of a pianist seemingly below their level. They disallow the showcasing of technical mastery, requiring instead patient consideration. They do not push boundaries of piano technique so much as examine them, thereby examining their performer.
Many used this as a way to insert themselves into Glass’s spacious organizations of time and consonance. Tania León found a regal sensuality in the ever-altering major and minor colors of the No. 13’s tonic chord and No. 14’s chromatic waltz. Muhly was well suited to the longing sewn into No.’s 5 and 6 and brought out their romantic tendencies, transforming percussive bell tones into lush melodies and the classic minor third ostinato into rich voice-leading.
Others kept their interpretations more inline with the composer’s performative habits. Timo Andres maintained sleek restraint on No. 9 with crisp articulations of the pointillist right hand. No. 10, an extended vamp on a B-flat dominant seventh chord, was bumped up in tempo halfway through, intensifying the desire for a resolution to F that never came, showing us that the harmony, contextually, is the farthest thing from dominant function. Jenny Lin kept stoic distance from the sweet melodies in No. 8, finding more juice in the octave trills and scales wedging each section apart.
Etude 20 defied all that came before it. Played by Maki Namekawa, Glass’s usual block construction is substituted by circular flow concealing beginnings and ends. A subject navigates through intervals that start close and catapult apart, sparse voicings that multiply, and a range that pools in the middle, spills out and over, and stabilizes at the very bottom. It is an etude for listener; Glass is not one to pigeonhole. Fixating on Western tropes through ethnic idioms, his formal balance is driven by human impulses. An amalgam of touches merges into a beating heart.
EYE ON THE ARTS, NY ---Celia Ipiotis