From the moment I found out that Philip Glass was going to be playing at St George’s Bristol for his only completely solo performance in Britain this year, I knew it was bound to be a special event. I arrived at the venue to see people waiting patiently and hoping for returns at the box office – the hall was packed to maximum capacity with extra seating at the back. The stage setting was simple, and consisted of purple uplighting, a grand piano, a stool and a microphone. This more casual concert setting allowed for a more genuine approach to listening to Glass’ music.

Philip Glass © Jim Ball
Philip Glass
© Jim Ball

Glass had a friendly nature on stage. He spoke gently into a microphone to introduce each piece and smiled, always being sure to explain thoroughly the history of what he was about to play and how the concert would pan out. It was clear that this was a performance with no pretension or bravado about stage presence. In front of us sat a humble man in his chinos and shirt who wanted to share a piece of who he was and his bountiful musical career.

Glass was greeted with huge applause from a full house. A Golden Globe and BAFTA winning composer, Glass is arguably one of the most influential composers of the late 20th century. To hear him play his own compositions was a privilege indeed. A simple programme, originally intended to be 80 minutes and without an interval, was altered slightly to contain a break for Glass and ended up spiralling into a two-hour concert. The programme didn’t tire as apart from the Etudes totaling 45 minutes of non-stop performance, the rest of the pieces were all around ten minutes maximum.

In the first half he played not seven, as programmed, but eight of his Etudes which would have required a substantial amount of stamina for any pianist. Glass wrote these pieces to challenge himself, and he did this on stage. He played without sheet music and it became clear that we were watching a composer at work. Snippets of his more famous works could be heard interlaced in his studies of repetition and rhythm. Each of the Etudes focused energy on a different aspect of his style of composition, whether it was the juxtaposition of playing triple time against double time or the crossing-over of hands, as in Etude no. 2. Seeing the composer himself play such an honest performance was mesmerizing. More dedicated members of the audience stood up the whole way through from the balcony, to be able to see his hands, whilst others closed their eyes. He played the Etudes with only a few second pause between each one, giving a taste of the organic nature of his music and how one piece can flow fairly smoothly into the next.

The last piece of the programme was Wichita Vortex Sutra and was written to accompany an anti-war poem of the same name by the poet Allen Ginsberg. The piece was performed with piano whilst the poem was spoken over loudspeaker. The result was moving, and provided a contrast to the mood of the rest of the concert. It felt at times that the poem was perhaps broadcast a little too loud, and that the voice and piano were fighting against each other to be heard. Glass’ playing style is bold, though, which matched the voice of the poet. His composition was designed to reflect the natural rhythms of the voice in the poem, but still felt fairly similar to the rest of his compositions and was very Glass. It was received well, with a laugh at the end.

The highlight of the concert was undoubtedly Metamorphosis II–IV. Part of a five-movement cycle of works for solo piano, it is a result of a fusion of different projects that have been combined to create one of his most captivating and popular solo piano works. Glass didn’t really explain why, but he played them backwards (IV–II), with almost no pause between them. He was closer to the piano for these pieces, and particularly the arpeggios in Metamorphosis IV were played with passion and a strong hand.

After astonishingly loud applause at the end of the concert, Glass stood up to the microphone on stage and said he would play just one final piece. He played Closing from Glassworks. Written in 1982, it was designed to appeal to a wider audience than he had appealed to before. The applause, shouts of “Bravo!” and standing ovation that followed summed up the general feeling towards the concert. This was, without a shadow of a doubt, the best musical event of this year at St George’s.

*****