I’m sat in the stalls of the Barbican Hall, at the end of what’s been an evening of beautiful, challenging music. Timo Andres is sat straight up at the piano in a rococo beige suit, his head back and his long arms stretched out before him, playing out the last bars of Philip Glass’s Etudes for Piano.
My mind wanders to an evening spent watching renegade concert pianist Chilly Gonzalez a few weeks back in the Cadogan Hall, during which he tried to dispel the idea that the piano was an unconquerable instrument. There were postcards being sold on the merch desk proclaiming that a monkey playing a note is no different to Tchaikovsky playing the same one, or something to that effect.
As entertaining as Gonzalez is – and his possibly faux reverse snobbery shtick is a joy to behold – he is wrong. Andres has just replaced Nico Muhly at the keys, who himself was preceded by Philip Glass. In some baton-passing way, the sequencing feels symbolic. From the master, to the protégée, to the (outside of classical circles) relatively unknown. All three are playing pieces from the same movement, but each emblazons his own contribution with a personalised stamp.
Glass (in a straightforward navy cardigan, naturally) carries an air of unaffected normality. I’d recently watched a rerun of the stellar Glass: A Portrait of Philip in Twelve Parts – a documentary tracing his journey from avant-garde nihilist of the Lower East Side to toast of Carnegie Hall. All the way through, the man was unflappably normal. The day after Einstein on the Beach opened at the Metropolitan Opera, the , er, broke Glass was driving a taxi around New York City when a passenger leaned forward to tell him that he had the same name as a “very famous composer”. He plays his pieces coldly – scientifically, Gonzalez might say. Etudes is not difficult to enjoy. Perhaps the reason Glass has enjoyed so much crossover success is that you don’t have to look too hard, to listen too deep, to find the crux of the melody, and his style is as minimalistic as the music itself.
Muhly, by contrast, is altogether more involved. He leans – dives – into the music, contorting his body with each lift and fall. His head bobs forwards and back, the sweat glistening on the side of his face. A Scream and an Outrage is his baby and by the end of his performance of Etudes, he is emotional and drained. He snatches the music from its holder and bows, fulsomely. The calibre and breadth of performers he’s gathered for the weekend is testament to his own chameleonic ways. Conor O’Brien of Villagers is nodding in approval a few rows in front of me, and earlier in the evening we’d had our hearts ripped from their cages and served still beating on a plate by Shara Worden of My Brightest Diamond’s performance of the impeccable death speaks by David Lang.
Twenty-something Andres is a hybrid of his predecessors, at least stylistically. He, too, evokes something scientific – his bowtie and muffin hair suggest that if he were to speak (which he doesn’t), he might ask us to tell him about our childhoods. He’s not as distant as Glass, but nowhere near as intense as Muhly. Glass played from memory, Muhly from manuscript and for Andres, there’s an iPad sat on the rack, emitting a dim, tinny light that’s drowning in the face of the grandness that surrounds it. His long fingers arguably coax more elegance from his pieces than the others and his style is more playful.
As the three align to take their applause, I recall Gonzalez and his ersatz philosophy again. While Glass, I’m sure, would never claim to be a “musical genius” (Gonzalez’s words), there’s something interesting about the way in which each has struck out from the “world of serious music” (Glass’s). But as he homes in on 80, Philip Glass is still producing music which can be interpreted and reinterpreted ad infinitum, which challenges and thrills and which finds new territory and pulls new life from the same set of parameters he was given 60 years ago. That, to me, is something marvellous.
Photograph by Sebastien Dehesdin