From the program notes to the concert on December 9th, 2017 at Roulette in Brooklyn with pianists Maki Namekawa and Dennis Russell Davies:
The relationship between Philip Glass and the piano is a very interesting one and to no small degree is connected in a very direct way to the conductor/pianist Dennis Russell Davies, pianist Maki Namekawa, and the composer’s own personal relationship to the piano.
Quite simply because so many composers play the piano and compose at the piano, the subject of composer-pianists is always an interesting one. There have been a great number of famous composers who also happened to be excellent pianists. These well-known names range from Mozart and Beethoven through the great Russian pianists of the 20th Century, to figures in more recent times like William Bolcom and Thomas Adès.
Starting his musical life as a flutist, Philip Glass actually began playing the piano at a fairly advanced age as a teenager. Over the years the piano became a bigger part of his creative life. While never described as a virtuoso, Glass himself calls himself “a decent pianist for a composer.” This statement in itself is significant because over the 20th century many composers started to move away from being active performers. Glass was part of a generation of composers who placed the composer back in front of the public in a direct way. In doing so, these composers once again became part of one of the more intimate streams of musical creativity, that direct and intimate link between a composer and the public.
While the lineage of composer/pianists is a long and illustrious list, it is perhaps only superseded by the list of famous conductor/pianists. For decades, Davies’ career has been largely based in Europe because of his desire to find communities where he could conduct symphony, opera, and chamber music all in the same city. Starting as a pianist, Davies has consistently remained an active performer as a soloist, an accompanist, and as part of the Namekawa-Davies piano duo.
Philip Glass’ first six Piano Etudes were written for Dennis Russell Davies’ 50th birthday and were premiered by Davies 23 years ago in 1994. The artistic purpose of those first pieces was two-fold: to give Glass piano music which challenged technical deficiencies that he found in his own playing, and to create a body of piano music which he could perform in concert.
Glass composed the first 16 Etudes in that year of 1994 and finished the complete set of 20 Etudes only recently in 2014. While the first ten were written by the composer for himself, when it came time to finish the second set of ten Etudes Glass began to see that he was clearly composing for a level of playing beyond his own ability, and that these new pieces might only be realized by a full-time professional pianist.
In advance of the first recording and the first publication of the definitive “Complete Piano Etudes” by Philip Glass, Maki Namekawa was the immediate choice to be the pianist to make the recording. The second set of Etudes not only presented new technical challenges, they also represented a more expanded sense of expressiveness that brought the issue of interpretation to the fore. Namekawa has been performing Glass’ music consistently for well over a decade and brought her crystalline technique to the work, but perhaps more importantly Namekawa has been touring with Glass for years performing the complete cycle – providing the extra musical insight that comes from years of developing personal interpretations.
The first true collaboration of all three performers took place in 2008 when the Klavier Festival Ruhr commissioned Glass’ “Four Movements for Two Pianos,” a piece that has gone on to become a repertoire piece for two pianists. This was followed five years later with another commission from Ruhr, a companion piece called appropriately “Two Movements for Four Pianos” that premiered with the combined duos of Namekawa-Davies and Katia & Marielle Labèque in 2013.
The suite from the opera Les Enfants Terribles (1996) was composed soon after the first set of piano etudes as such, the expressive possibilities of pianos was in the forefront of Glass’ mind. This opera is part of a trilogy of operas based on the works of Jean Cocteau. This period represented a great turning in Glass’ music towards more emotional subject matter. The music from this “dance-opera” ranges from a thrilling overture which opens the piece to sounds straight from French music (The Bedroom) to a vivid portrayal of Sleepwalking in music (Elizabeth Chooses a Career). “Les Enfants” was the third opera of a trilogy of works based on Cocteau and was preceded by Orphée (1993) and La Belle et la Bete (1994). These were all works composed around the same time as the original 16 piano etudes, and in its original for Glass set “Les Enfants Terribles” for three pianos which the composer took on tour, performed, and ultimately recorded in the 1990s.
The piano-four-hand portion of the concert focuses on three pieces: an Interlude from Orphée, a musical Interlude from the first act of the opera The Voyage which was commissioned by the Metropolitan Opera in 1992, and a piece called Stokes from 2013.
Four Movements for Two Pianos is related, albeit as a distant cousin, to the Glass Etudes (1994). Far denser than the original six piano études, the piece could be viewed as closer to Glass’ music for .Les Enfants Terribles. Four Movements for Two Pianos builds widely on the expressive possibility of multiple pianos. The compacted harmonies stand in contrast to earlier Glass pieces of the past 15 years. The composer, still using repetition, moved toward a new turn harmonic development through autodidactic processes, that is to say that more than ever before the supplementary notes Glass introduces to the harmonies that are at first heard as “wrong” are quickly heard in their proper context. Inasmuch, the piece can now be seen almost a decade later as a forerunner for the stylistic change that would happen in Glass’ music going forward. Also of interest are the roles the soloists play in the work. The piece does not limit performers to a certain range of the piano for the duration of the piece. Glass has each performer exchanging roles freely. That choice results in the listener hearing each performer’s style in different ranges at different moments in the piece.
Composing for the piano has remained a constant since Glass wrote those first pieces for Davies in the early 1990s. For not just piano music, perhaps no other performer has done more to inspire, instigate, nurture and champion the music of Philip Glass than has Dennis Russell Davies including the recent world premiere of Glass’ Eleventh Symphony at Carnegie Hall in January on the occasion of Glass’ 80th birthday. For audiences, this body of piano music has been a particularly fruitful musical collaboration in perhaps the most intimately personal medium for composers. What these three gifted musical personalities have accomplished together represents a unique constellation of talents converging into a singular artistic purpose and exploration into the artistic possibilities of the piano.
-Richard Guérin December 2017