When Koyaanisqatsi came out, I saw it in San Diego as a young curator, and subsequently met Glass in Los Angeles in 1983. I’ve loved this music from my first encounter, and wish I could see Glass perform more often.
Partisans who rate the quality of modern music by the number of empty seats in the hall must find Philip Glass very frustrating. A concert of his music featuring the composer at the piano sold out Bing Concert Hall last Thursday, September 29, making a spectacular start to Stanford Live’s season. What’s more, the program consisted of Glass’s complete set of 20 etudes for piano. Since at least the days of Chopin and Czerny, “etude,” meaning “study,” has implied a work more focused on giving pianists an opportunity to practice their technique than on appealing to listeners.
Indeed, Glass began this project 25 years ago — it took him over two decades to complete — largely to give himself exercise material. Thursday’s music all sounded like Glass — tonal, rhythmic, and hypnotic — but it was uncompromisingly diligent and most impressively long. Including one intermission, the concert lasted three hours, and not all the audience stayed the course. I admit to feeling some mental fatigue myself by the end, but the marathon was worth the miles. One pianist would find it challenging to play the entire set at a go, and one pianist didn’t try. Even Glass himself, scheduled to play four etudes, cut down to three. But then, he will be 80 years old in four months.
The heroic Anton Batagov, a robust 50, took up the slack. Glass, Batagov, and three other pianists were scheduled to play the cycle as a tag team — two sets of two etudes apiece — and with that one exception they stuck with the plan. In a preconcert chat, Glass said that he likes hearing other musicians bring their own personalities and interpretations to his work. Why, as he once put it, should he wish to hear other performers being him? He must have been pleased with this concert, for each pianist was strikingly distinct. Many brought out echoes of other composers and styles, especially in the later etudes, which drift away from the strict exercise function of the earlier works.