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Philip Glass performs NY premiere of his complete Etudes at BAM

Concert Includes Diverse Group of Pianists

December 10, 2014 By Benjamin Preston Special to the Brooklyn Daily Eagle
Nine pianists joined Philip Glass at BAM to perform Glass' piano etudes. From left: Anton Batagov, Aaron Diehl, Bruce Levingston, Maki Namekawa, Philip Glass, Jenny Lin, Sally Whitwell, Nico Muhly and Timo Andres. Not pictured: Tania Leon. Photo by Stephanie Berger, courtesy of BAM
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The Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) hosted Philip Glass and a group of other piano virtuosi over the weekend for a performance of Glass’ 20 Etudes. The show, which was held at the Howard Gilman opera house, ushered in the tail end of BAM’s 2014 Next Wave Festival.

Mention the word etude and anyone who has studied music will likely recall hours spent playing pieces that seemed less like songs and more like difficult, often monotonous technical exercises. In other words, many etudes — although not all — can reach a level of pedagogy that causes most human ears to send signals to the brain to shut down for condition: boredom.

Many composers have written etudes, and many more students have played them, but only a handful of the tricky tunes — from such master pianists as Frédéric Chopin, Franz Liszt and Claude Debussy — have made it into the limelight as the sort of music people would want to go see at a concert hall. Add Philip Glass to that list, too.

In 1994, Glass was already well-known for his film scores and had been writing symphonies and concertos for a few years as well. To improve his skill, he began writing a series of 20 etudes, all of which were performed for the first time as a complete set this past weekend at BAM. Each piece has its own distinct character, but they all have a similar style and tone. Together, they are a melancholy set, but one not without romantic beauty and bright spots.

All of the etudes could have been set to film or stage drama. Nico Muhly began with No. 5, a somber but melodic piece that, for me, conjured images of a dolorous priest wandering between snow-covered villages as he contemplated the ultimate wisdom of his decision to wander in search of answers. It could have been the long black frock Muhly wore, but the music did, in cinematic fashion, prompt imagination. 

No. 9, played by Timo Andres — with its somber, ringing undertones, occasional bright trills and complex fast sections — could have been the score for a film about a civil servant who, after years spent as an unnoticed cog in the unnecessarily complex bureaucratic machine, strikes out on his own to become a clockmaker. Andres made a surprising flourish at the end of his performance, which he had played with a stiff back. He struck a dramatic, almost Michael Jackson-esque pose, facing the audience just before the spotlight was extinguished.

Anton Batagov, a Russian pianist and post-minimalist composer, used his pedals in a manner that made the piano sound more like a full-bodied string orchestra than a piano. It was the sort of heartrending melody you would expect to hear while watching the scene in a war film where a platoon of fresh-faced 19-year-olds is cut down by the merciless fire of the enemy’s black-barreled, foliage-shrouded machine guns.

Of course, the individual performers added their own flair to each piece. For example, Aaron Diehl let his well-established jazz chops shine through on Nos. 3 and 4. Composer and conductor Tania León attacked simultaneous opposing scales with an apparent ease that belied her deep classical experience. Maki Nemakawa, who was up last and was, perhaps, the most compelling performer of Friday’s set, played with perfection, but also with plenty of emotional character.

Glass, who played first, certainly hadn’t forgotten anything about the music he had written, but it was interesting to see how others had taken it and molded it into something their own. The result of that musical alchemy produced something beautiful.

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