Glassfest was the latest collaboration between arts venues in Bristol, seeing their two major classical music venues St George’s and Colston Hall working alongside the Watershed Cinema for a weekend-long celebration of American minimalist composer Philip Glass. With a tirelessly large repertoire of music that is ever expanding, Glass’ compositional output is still as vast today as it was 40 years ago.

Philip Glass © Raymond Meier
Philip Glass
© Raymond Meier

This concert at St George’s was a chance to see Philip Glass in solo performance as a composer. In the intimate venue, the concert was a complete sell-out. The hall was dotted with extra chairs wherever they could be squeezed in for other audience members. Glass himself made a swift entrance on the stage straight up to the microphone to say softly that he was going to play Etude 1 and Etude 2 with no break. He played these first two pieces rigidly, moving only his fingers and sitting fairly upright. The scalic movement up and down the piano and relentlessly pulsing left hand were typical of Glass’ style. Later on in the concert, he was much more dynamic at the piano and the performance felt more relaxed. It seemed the less expectated of the music, the more relaxed he was. The most dynamic performances were Glass’ own addition to the evening’s programme of Re: Awakenings and Dance no. 9 in two parts. Referring to Re: Awakenings, Glass mumbled, “I hope I can remember the piece”, before he started to play. It was a shame that Glass didn’t play the Mad Rush as had been programmed, but made up for it with these two dynamic performances.

In conversation with conductor Charles Hazlewood, Glass did most of the talking. Hazlewood asked broad questions about Glass’ ideals as a composer. He mainly spoke about the difficulties of notating music and that although a written score may be what a performer is presented with, it is the music itself that is initially created that is significant. He also stated that for this reason it was near impossible for anyone else to recreate his music how he hears it.

Unlike most recordings of his piano works by other people, Glass himself likes to play around with the rhythms and tempo of his works. He uses rubato, slowing down at the beginning and end of natural phrases and speeding up in the middle of them. When questioned about playing his own piano works at a different tempo by Hazlewood in the second half of the concert, Glass said, “I push the beat around”. He talked about the tyranny of notating music and that his scores are never necessarily accurate but that he is “trying to capture the music as best [he] can” for other people to play. The most authentic performance of a work by Philip Glass was always going to be by the man himself.

The few slips he makes in his work could be forgiven when the stamina required to perform his repetitive pieces was so evident. Despite a wrong harmonic here and there, his fingers always maintained a constant rhythm and the meditative effect of his music was thoroughly in place for the majority of the concert. Taking into account the demanding nature of his music, it is unsurprising that he didn’t play more pieces in the evening’s programme.

The programme was a good balance of Glass’ later works from the ‘80s and ‘90s. He played Metamorphoses 4,3 and 2 in reverse because he preferred them that way and thought they linked better, playing Metamorphosis 5 as a well-received encore. The highlight of the concert was one of his most well known pieces performed at the very end The Opening from Glassworks. The complex cross rhythms playing two beats in the right hand for every three in the left hand posed the composer no problems and the result was really beautiful. It was played with the addition of his subtle dynamics that rose and fell in the natural waves of the music where chromatic chords rose and fell.

All in all, this evening was an intimate insight into Philip Glass as a composer. The last time he visited St George’s he played the piano for the whole concert. It would have been nice to hear him play more music, but at the same time, it was interesting to hear his point of view on composing and the difficulties of translating how he perceives music onto paper. 

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