Some of the most exciting performances of the BAM 2014 Next Wave Festival have been appearances by Philip Glass. Earlier this fall, Glass reunited with Steve Reich to play to a packed Howard Gilman Opera House. This weekend, Glass returned to the same stage for the New York première of his complete Piano Etudes. Produced by Glass’ long-time collaborator Linda Brumbach, the dazzling showcase divided the 20 etudes equally among the ten performers.

Philip Glass © Raymond Meier
Philip Glass
© Raymond Meier

When thinking of Glass’ minimalist style, I almost always recall an incident at our alma mater, The University of Chicago. One day, in the library coffee shop, Glass’ music was playing. In an otherwise peaceful space, someone angrily huffed, “Is this Philip Glass? I always feel like if he doesn’t modulate soon, I’m gonna kill myself!” Hearing the Complete Etudes performed by ten different musicians is enough to convince anyone that Glass’s music is much more than endless arpeggios.

The line-up included a mix of composers, pianists, and composer-pianists. Though Glass should be the expert on playing Glass, he and the other composers on the bill were not as satisfying to hear as those who work primarily as pianists. Indeed, just because you can compose for the piano does not mean your piano technique is up to snuff. Friday’s performance of the Complete Etudes was definitely a ladies’ night, with the most exceptional performances by Maki Namekawa, Jenny Lin and Sally Whitwell.

Maki Namekawa, who just this year performed the Complete Etudes in both the United States and Europe, was the most captivating by far. In Etude no. 19, she brought out the complex and often conflicting sentiments in the music. The magic of Glass’ music is that, in its abstract simplicity, listeners can map their own meanings onto it. Namekawa rose above technique, and even “interpretation,” to enter the kind of meditative state one must be in to fully appreciate Glass’ style, and especially to perform it. Egoless, abstract appreciation of aesthetic experiences is what Glass’s music encourages, and Namekawa gets that.

Though Namekawa was the obvious standout, Jenny Lin and Sally Whitwell were almost equally impressive. Lin displayed exceptional strength and unrelenting precision in Etudes no. 7 and 8 – a true virtuoso. Whitwell achieved a healthy balance between perfect pianistic technique and the more rough and rubato-filled sound that Glass uses himself. Glass bends the tempo so much, and is occasionally uncoordinated between his right and left hands. Of all the composers on the program, Whitwell was definitely the most compelling as a pianist.

Aaron Diehl, who appeared directly after Glass himself, played Etudes no. 3 and no. 4 with great success. His left hand technique was electric and in No. 3 the bass snapped and stung. Timo Andres, who ended the first half of the program with Etudes no. 9 and 10, earned thunderous applause immediately when the lights blacked out.

Nico Muhly reinforced that just because you can compose music, doesn’t mean you can play it. Or, at least not play on a level that can compete with the likes of Namekawa and Lin. While Muhly did not sound amateurish in the same ways that Glass does at the keyboard, he lacked intention behind his performance. Muhly was not the only performer Friday evening to use sheet music, though he was one of the only ones who really sounded like he was just reading what was in front of him. When certain musical ideas were repeated, Muhly performed them differently. Though it sounded as if these differences were the result of lack of consideration or preparation, rather than artistic intention.

Jennifer Tipton’s lighting was incredibly clever and effective. Using only a few simple spots, gels and piano lid’s reflection, Tipton created effects that not only perfectly complemented Glass’ music, but added to it. Both thoughtful and beautiful, I will certainly remember Tipton’s work for these performances of complete Piano Etudes for quite some time.

Friday’s concert was interesting enough that I was almost tempted to hear how some of my favorite performers that night would sound performing different etudes on Saturday. In quasi-aleatoric fashion, though the order of the Etudes remained the same for each of the performances, the pianists who performed them changed (with the exception of Glass, who opened the concerts with no. 1 and 2 each night).