So at 8:00 pm Monday, July 28th, 1997 I found myself in the front row of the Washington Square Methodist Church at 135 West Fourth St., in New York City. I am waiting eagerly for Philip Glass to begin performing, as the program has him listed first. To my initial disappointment pianist Tian Jiang, second on the program, went first. But after hearing the his first notes, I realized that I had foolishly assumed I would not enjoy this brilliant virtuoso from Shanghai (then unbeknownst to me) who had lived through the Red Guard stomping through his childhood home in search of Western contraband – music and instruments. Taught the piano in secret, he soon became so privately renowned that the authorities looked the other way, and allowed his family to continue training him.
Jiang began with the Bach – Busoni Organ Toccata in C major, which really surprised me. Why would a pianist open with such risky work, since this particular toccata has a rather awkward opening sequence, followed by a rapid series of runs on the right hand? So much at stake, so much to mess up…but I guess that is why he is a virtuoso, he is at home where others dare not travel. I also thought it wonderfully odd that he would open with the Busoni transcription, and then proceed to Mozart’s K. 330, a sonata also in C major – a rather heavy Bach organ toccata proceeding to the delicate sweetness of the (complete) K. 330 (!), which was then followed by the moody adagio of K. 475. Both the Bach and Mozart were played flawlessly and musically, a wonderful beginning to a wonderful night.
Jiang then launched into Chopin’s Scherzo in Bb Minor (op. 31), which I personally can’t stand. The flamboyant opening was played perfectly by Jiang, and I couldn’t have been more miserable having to sit through an excellent performance of music that felt like it was scientifically designed to annoy me to my utmost. I don’t know why I hate Chopin so much; my blood hurts when those brazen notes begin to fly. But what sweet relief when Jiang took his well deserved applause, and the piano stood empty, ready to be filled with Glass’s ethereal genius.
I really love Philip Glass’s music; I love it to near excess. As much as Chopin grates on any and all available nerves of mine, Glass’s music fills my soul with divine stirrings, hints of nirvana, whispers of the Buddha; I swoon and wobble with an ecstasy that borders on irrational. It does something to me; it lifts immovable objects in my soul. And my most cherished Glass piece is his second Metamorphosis, although it always seems to be played so fast. I had longed to hear it played slower, and hoped to heaven this would be the case that evening.
Glass, dressed in conservative, elegant tones, came out and briefly addressed the audience as I sat in terrified, giddy silence. So close, so close, so much love for his music, so desperate to hear it played by the man himself! Thank you God that I am here tonight!! And to my delight he began with an almost glacial, translucent rendition of Etude #2. It was perfect…I swear only Philip himself can play these pieces as they are meant to be played. He, with stoic face and even handed assurance, moved through this and the following compositions (Metamorphosis #2, 3, and 4) with dignity and patience. It was Metamorphosis #2 that really benefitted from Glass’ tempic reticence. Once the piece metrically modulates, I find that most performers rush the right hand, but Glass was tender and moved through the altered rhythm as with a mother’s touch on the forehead of her sleeping child.
Metamorphosis Three was also a wonderful revelation, as he played it with a surprising lilt, giving the piece an almost ‘New Orleansean’ jaunty quality I would have never suspected would work with such material. Glass then ended the evening with his probing, hopeful Metamorphosis #4, with a ritardando at the end not typical of his works. It was beautiful and the small crowd clapped enthusiastically, while I took what felt like my first breath of the evening. For a fan of Philip Glass this was the ultimate concert, an evening with Glass performing Glass on a grand piano in a room so intimate I could have reached out and touched him on the nose if I had leaned a little.
The concert finished and I sat glowing in my seat, thrilled and astonished. It really happened, I was there, and Philip Glass was wandering the room meeting friends and fans. I finally worked up the courage to go talk to him, and what happened next was rather unbelievable…
(Part Three coming soon…)