Five Pianists Parade Their Perspectives On Theater Of Glass Etudes

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How many pianists does it take to play Philip Glass’ etudes? In Los Angeles, it took Lara Downes, Anton Batagov, Timo Andres, Jenny Lin, and Maki Namekawa. (Photos by Halline Overby for the Los Angeles Philharmonic)

LOS ANGELES — The tradition of etudes for solo piano, by definition and connotation, evokes a single performer embarked on a Gradus ad Parnassum, a lonely and sometimes Sisyphean pilgrimage toward elusive perfection.

But Philip Glass introduces a Doppelgänger in his remarkable cycle of 20 Etudes in the sense that his identities as composer and performer converge — and divide. He began writing them in 1991 with the explicit aim to improve his own keyboard technique yet, like so many illustrious forebears (Bach, Liszt, Chopin, Debussy, etc.), simultaneously found the exercises a useful springboard to try out compositional ideas. As presented during a single evening on March 19 at Walt Disney Concert Hall, with five pianists — Timo AndresAnton Batagov, Lara Downes, Jenny Lin, and Maki Namekawa — taking turns to collectively traverse the complete group, the multiplication of perspectives suggested a gracefully innovative form of collaboration.

Collaboration seems to be an indispensable catalyst for Glass. Not just in the obvious sense of teaming up with performers — a sense inherent to the role of any composer who wants to have their music brought to life — but insofar as Glass has remained perennially curious about formats that allow his music to intersect with the creative work of musical colleagues as well as artists from other disciplines.

Jenny Lin

It’s no coincidence that the Cartesian process that led to Glass’ signature style of “music with repetitive structures” (the term he prefers, versus being minimized to “Minimalism”) unfolded in part in the context of his experimental theater work in the 1960s. The intensely collaborative media of opera and film have proved especially attractive across the span of the composer’s long career. Glass’ instinct for partnering with figures from ballet, theater, film, literature, and the visual arts who can somehow mesh with his own aesthetic drives much of his prolific output.

Glass published the 20 Etudes in two books of 10 each, completing the second set in 2012, a little more than two decades after he had launched the cycle. The early ones came in handy to supplement Glass’ repertoire for his own solo recitals. As he proceeded, Glass found himself drawn to follow a “new path” in the later Etudes, which he describes as “a series of new adventures in harmony and structure.”

In other words, the compositional exploration eclipsed the focus on improving technique that had been an initial spur. Glass began to enlist other pianists to take on the more technically challenging of these creations. Nine hand-picked fellow pianists joined the composer to present the Etudes as a complete cycle for the first time at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in 2014. Four of the five pianists at Disney Concert Hall were among them (Downes being the only exception).

Anton Batagov

Over the past decade, the collaborative presentation of the 20 Etudes has evolved a theatricality of its own that also shaped the Los Angeles event and contributed significantly to its impact. Lighting design and the rhythm of stage entrances conjured the solemn purpose of a ritual. With every changing of the pianistic guard — each performer played a set of two etudes on both halves of the program — a pair of stagehands deftly moved one of the four benches arranged in an anticipatory semicircle upstage to replace the one at the centerstage grand.

John Torres’ atmospheric lighting signaled these chapter changes and, once a new artist had become situated, cooled the space with shadow and calm to get everyone in the mood for another bout of intense concentration — or blissed-out free association, as the case may be.

Lin released her recording of the cycle in 2017 and did the honor of starting the evening. She channeled an oracular certitude in the rightness of Glass’ harmonic shifts in Etude No. 1, elegantly crossing her hands in No. 2 and never belaboring its intimate melancholy.

Timo Andres

It already became clear with the Russian Batagov’s first set that the element of self-portraiture the Etudes embody is capable of co-existing with multiple portrayals mirroring the personalities of the different performers. Batagov has also recorded the complete cycle (also in 2017). His mix of rubato and darkened tones was worlds apart from most of the other interpretations and suggested an element of jazz improvisation. He also drew out the haunting ambiguity that ends No. 17.

To this taste, the most satisfying and fully realized accounts came from Andres, who was also in town for the world premiere this weekend of his piano concerto Made of Tunes by the Los Angeles Philharmonic with John Adams conducting and Aaron Diehl as the soloist. Andres helped edit the recent publication of a deluxe folio anthology of the scores of Glass’ complete Etudes, which is accompanied by a book of essays, Studies in Time, by such personalities as the chef Alice Waters, the filmmaker Martin Scorsese, and the radio journalist Ari Shapiro among others who have responded to Glass’ music in uniquely creative ways. The box set (Artisan) was the brainchild of Linda Brumbach and Alisa E. Regas of Pomegranate Arts, the indie production company that has presented the “Complete Piano Etudes” concerts since 2014.

Maki Namekawa

Playing his first assignments (Nos. 5 and 6) from memory — reading from sheet music or iPads was the more frequent choice — Andres offered an entrancing combination of thoughtfulness and poetic phrasing. He brought out the profound introspection that recalls late Beethoven or Brahms but also championed the grandiosity of No. 11, producing what may have been the most thunderous fortissimos of the evening. Impeccable articulation set the rapid-fire arpeggios of No. 12 sailing like an ocean of time-lapse-recorded clouds.

Namekawa has had a special connection to the Etudes from the start. It was for her conductor-husband Dennis Russell Davies that Glass put together the first six as a birthday gift, and Namekawa made the first recording of the complete cycle in 2014. Her interpretations formed another highlight of the evening, which (with intermission) lasted a bit more than three hours. Dynamic contrasts were infinitely shaded, while Namekawa gave pinpoint precision to the trills in No. 7.

Lara Downes

A sense of playfulness emerged in Downes’ phrasing of the sparkling chords and rhythms of No. 10, which seals Book I with an expectant harmonic tease. (Is it possible that the ostinato progression of No. 14 slyly alludes to Bob Dylan’s “Rainy Day Women #12 & 35” — a.k.a. “Everybody Must Get Stoned”?)

After changing for the second half into a stunning alabaster kimono that enveloped the bench, Namekawa closed the program with the longest of the Etudes, No. 20, suggesting a lullaby morphing into a funeral song and back again.

The sold-out concert attracted a notably younger audience who enthusiastically clapped as each etude was finished. But thankfully they waited for Namekawa to hold the gesture and allow at least a modicum of silence to ring through the hall as the notes of No. 20 stopped tolling.