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philip glass etudes barbican

Afterthoughts: Philip Glass At Barbican

At approximately 7.32pm on Wednesday April 29th, Philip Glass walked towards a large black piano occupying the centre stage of a fully packed Barbican Hall. Unlike the majority of happenings in the alternative music sphere, this was a performance where nobody dreamed of being late. People were dashing to their seats in a frenzy twenty minutes before the scheduled start time. There was an affirmative air of high-brow academia enveloping the Brutalist concert hall.

Without haste Glass sat, adjusted his sheet music and sprung into the first arpeggio of a long and winding saga which took over two decades to compose. Having only ever been to the Barbican for loudspeaker driven performances, I had always come away feeling that the sound could have been improved on immensely. I was delightfully surprised with the natural amplification of the grand piano, accentuated by the crisp dry acoustics of the timber panelled room.

It was hard to evade the reality that the maestro is an ageing man and made minor faults on more than one occasion throughout the evening. He played these discrepancies off without appearing bothered in the slightest. Now approaching 78, he earned his stripes many moons ago and quite frankly is the sole reason anyone was in attendance. He received the biggest applauses, people were filled with joy to be in his presence.

Following a quick rearranging of piano stools, (there were five in total, one matched to each pianist’s specifications) Northern Ireland’s Claire Hammond – the first of four prodigies whom I had admittedly never heard of before, emerged to recite ‘Études 3 & 4’. From the first key stricken, panache was the adjective that sprung to mind. Instinctively I flipped to her bio in the programme to investigate, it was satisfying to read that she has been acclaimed as just that – ‘a pianist of amazing power and panache.’ Hammond played with conviction and her deliverance was the most authoritative of the evening.

Philip glass barbican telegraph (rex images)

Next in line was Icelandic tour-du-force Vikingur Ólafsson who marched out onto the stage in a sharp black suit. Displaying showmanship & great dexterity, he seamlessly made his mark on the intense polyrhythmic plateaus of ‘Études 5 and 6’. He also provided a note of humour to the evening after his first performance – making a modest dash in the wrong direction he mistook a piece of wood panelling as the exit. The room erupted in laughter and applause bringing the Juilliard honed intensity right back to earth.

American composer Timo Andres was assigned the most upbeat and lively compositions in ‘Études 9 & 10’. They were a perfect match and his fingers whipped up a whirlwind of energy with bravado. Japan’s Maki Namekawa, one of Glass’s most accomplished prophets had the least impact on me during ‘Études 7 & 8’ but with her eyes closed she closed ‘Étude 20’ with a stark and poignant display of deathly serenity which sent chills down the spine.

The evening was a celebration of nineteen years of compositional work, a masterclass in practice and showcasing of some of the most daring pianists of modern times…

Conor McTernan

Featured images: ObserverTelegraph