An uneven evening of Glass Etudes at the Kennedy Center

Sat Mar 10, 2018 at 1:54 pm

Five pianists, including Philip Glass, performed Glass’s complete Etudes Friday night at the Kennedy Center. Photo: Steve Pike

The piano etude evokes many aspects of a pianist’s life: endless hours spent in stale practice rooms, the triumph of virtuosity achieved or the failure of hands and mind, and, at best, the marriage of technical challenge and musicality.

The performance of Philip Glass’s two books of Etudes, featuring the composer and four other pianists in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall on Friday, seemed designed to present all of those aspects. The Etudes are autumnal high points in Glass’s oeuvre, containing tautly executed ideas, often in distinctive harmonic patterns, that are presented with economy and variety.

Glass composed his Etudes between 1991 and 2012. Just before he had completed the second book, he performed six of them on a rare solo recital at the Phillips Collection in 2011. Following an injury, his hands were too weak to handle the demands of his music at the keyboard. Now 81, Glass took the stage to broad cheering in both halves of the concert, taking a seat at the lonely Steinway in a pool of spotlight, for what was astoundingly his Kennedy Center debut. (In what became an almost ritualistic repetition, stage hands changed the piano bench for each performer.)

In the first two etudes at the opening of the concert, the composer struggled valiantly, slowing down the more complex sections to be able to accomplish things like the octaves in Etude No. 1 or the hand crossings in Etude No. 2. Similar approximations were prevalent in the unevenly metered Etude No. 16, and in the long, wandering Etude No. 17, where Glass appeared to get a little lost at times.

Glass was not the only player to have difficulty. Producer-songwriter Devonté Hynes took the easy Etude No. 5 at a soporific pace and then floundered through the repeated-note motifs, octaves, and arpeggiation of Etude No. 6. Fortunately, in a change to the program, his more capable colleagues replaced him for his scheduled, much more difficult two etudes on the second half.

Kennedy Center artistic director of Jazz Jason Moran played his four etudes with the score, generally choosing deliberative tempos and laboring somewhat with the more intense passages. The trills in Etude No. 7 faded, and he tended to give weight solely to the right hand, even when it carried accompanying patterns, thus obscuring melodic ideas embedded in the texture. Moran had his strongest turn in the moto perpetuo Etude No. 12, the fluid shifts of arpeggiation patterns rippling gently and consistently.

From a musical point of view, it would have been ideal to divide the set between just two of the performers, Aaron Diehl and Jenny Lin. Diehl’s rendition of Etude No. 3, following directly after the composer’s first appearance, hit a delightful rhythmic groove and showed wonderful balance of the hands and voicing. Glass’s music often demands a sort of affectless sheen, which Diehl caught perfectly in Etude No. 4. The percolating scales of Etude No. 13 and the ragtime chromatic glints in Etude No. 14 were also highlights of the evening.

Lin, who recorded the entire set last year, was supremely polished in her interpretation of five of the most difficult etudes. In Etude No. 9, for example, as she shifted back and forth between hands, with no weight change in the sound. Etude No. 10 sparkled brilliantly, a combination of technical serenity and bravura, the elegant finish not betraying any sense of the challenges. As she played the final three etudes, especially the fleeting Brahmsian anguish of Etude No. 20, the poignancy of the comparison to the decline of the composer was only heightened.

The Kennedy Center presented this concert as part of its new Direct Current festival, described as bringing together “cutting-edge composition, dance, drag, film, jazz, Hip Hop, video games, electronica, ecology, and activism.” It seems unlikely that Diehl and Lin alone could have filled the Concert Hall on their own, in spite of their superior playing, without the draw of more popular figures like Glass and Moran.

The Direct Current festival continues through March 19 at the Kennedy Center and other venues.; 202-467-4600.

One Response to “An uneven evening of Glass Etudes at the Kennedy Center”

  1. Posted Sep 21, 2018 at 6:40 pm by Bonita Holland Winer

    I’ve seen this set of all twenty twice once at BAM and again at the Kennedy Center and fully agree with this reviewer though I have often since fantasized about owning a recording of Dielh playing all twenty etudes. His technique may not be as elegant as Lin’s but he is, I think due to his jazz background, able to bring a deeply rolling emotional quality to the steady rhythms that is so often missing in performances of Glass’ music.
    Vikingur Olafsson’s approach accomplishes something similar but with a different, cooler, result.

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