Philip Glass’s detractors are fond of saying that his music all sounds the same. It’s time to get rid of that stereotype. When you hear Bach, you know it’s Bach right away, so distinctive is that composer’s artistic voice, but we don’t dismiss him by lumping his works together as “sounding the same.”
On Friday, the Kennedy Center Concert Hall was filled for a performance of Glass’s 20 piano études, written between 1991 and 2012, played by five different pianists, as part of the new Direct Current festival. Not only did the performance show a body of significant work, written with sophistication and variety; it demonstrated that these pieces do best when played with a trained concert pianist’s level of technical ability. Yet having pianists from different backgrounds and styles — Aaron Diehl, Devonté Hynes, Jenny Lin and Jason Moran, as well as Glass himself — also showed the welcome fact that this work is part of a living dialogue: It’s something that artists of different genres want to approach and explore.
The biggest draw, and the messiest player, was of course the composer. Glass, 81, has billed this as his main-stage Kennedy Center debut — he did play once in a public space here in 1974 with the Philip Glass Ensemble, not as a solo performer — and the full house acknowledged him with a roar when he entered and sat down to open the evening with the first two études. Glass has never been a great pianist, and the fuzziness of his playing served to make clear the kind of technical ability it takes to delineate his rhythms and structures clearly. But his phrasing was fascinating: He approached these pieces as if they were Romantic keyboard classics. The message: Don’t emphasize the mechanical. The point is not the underlying thumbprint, the arpeggiations and repetitions. The point is the music that grows out of them.
On the other hand, if you can’t play the arpeggiations cleanly, something gets lost in the translation. The first set of 10 études were written, the composer has said, mainly as technical exercises, each focusing on a different element, in the best classical-music tradition, and technique seemed to be a stumbling block for some of the pianists, until Lin sat down for Nos. 9 and 10 and showed everyone how it is done. Moran, however, found a way to own the material, making the melodic eighth étude sing like a vocal work. And in the 11th and 12th études, bigger and more expressive pieces to open a set that’s more concerned with harmonic relationships than technical details, he conveyed the size and scope of the pieces with authority.
But overall it was Lin, finishing up the concert with Nos. 18, 19 and 20, who showed with clarity the depths and graces of the music, from No. 18’s reflective explorations, briefly evoking Satie, to the big majestic rises and falls of the 20th, with moments of veritably late-Romantic sweetness.
It was a striking evening, bringing a form of music linked with aficionados (a two-plus-hour recital of solo piano playing) to a large audience not necessarily familiar with that particular ritual, but who seemed to enjoy this exposure to it. It’s a shame that more of the aficionados aren’t familiar with this repertoire, though; these pieces ought to show up on more standard recital programs. They would certainly hold their own.
The Philip Glass Ensemble will perform “Koyaanisqatsi” on March 16.