Complete Piano Etudes | Philip GlassI have been reminded over the last few weeks how lucky we are to be able to experience artistic legends such as Philip Glass during festivals such as the 2013 Perth International Arts Festival. The sublime Perth Concert Hall hosted the world premiere of his Complete Piano Etudes, the last three (#18, 19, 20) commissioned especially for PIAF and performed for the first time in their entirety together. Performed by Glass himself, Maki Namekawa and Sally Whitwell the performance was hypnotic, mesmerising, inspirational, and pure brilliance.

American born and bred Glass turned 75 in 2012, but there seems to be no indication that he is slowing down, with two symphonies and a new arts festival in the last few years, plus the last three etudes. Those not familiar with his classical repertoire may know his music from the movies Kundin, The Hours, Notes on a Scandal, The Illusionist, and The Truman Show. Between these five movies there are three Oscar nominations, Golden Globe and Grammy nominations, a Bafta and a Golden Globe award.

It is almost surprising to hear then, that the first ten Piano etudes were composed with the “idea of providing performable music that would also improve my piano playing”. Glass feels he has done well on that score, and I think the Perth audience would agree. Other etudes have been commissioned by festivals, but as he says “I was looking at Etudes #11 – 20 as part of the general array of musical expression that had become available to me through my years of composing”.

We were offered light and dark, heavy and soft melodies, sounds that tripped through the scales like the light fantastic and were backed by repetitive dark chords. Glass teases audiences with his endings, often finishing an etude, particularly a fast paced one, without warning. There were moments after certain etudes (#6 being a good example) where the whole audience seemed to pause and then remember to breath before applauding.

The 20 etudes were played out of order at Glass’s request, who says in the program “it was important that the personalities of my guest performers as interpreters could be reflected”. Talented Australian Whitwell, who elicited gasps from the more staid audience members with her shock of pink hair and visible tattoo, performed #9, 14, 7, 15, 16, 19 and 11. Playing without music, her performance was sharp, evocative and powerful.

Internationally acclaimed soloist Namekawa performed #3, 5, 6, 18, 12, 13, and the final one, #20. More technically sounding than Whitwell and Glass, she still embodied passion in the etudes and brought the evening to a spectacular, gracious end. Whether it was because I knew it was the final etude, or it has been specifically composed like that, #20 sounded like an ending, a beautifully haunting piece of love, life, heartbreak and hope.  

Glass performed six of his etudes to rapturous applause. Although heavy on the pedal and with a few odd sounding notes thrown in, his fingers were just as quick as Namekawa’s and Whitwell’s, especially in the challenging #10. I am in awe of a person who can not only compose such wonderful music, but still play so well at 75 years of age.

Now Mr Glass, please hurry up and release the CD of the Complete Piano Etudes. There is a standing ovation audience who can’t wait to see them again.

Perth International Arts Festival presents
Complete Piano Etudes
Philip Glass

Venue: Perth Concert Hall | 5 St Georges Terrace, Perth
Date: 16 Feb 2013
Tickets: $135 – $25

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