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Pianist’s Full Glass


Bruce Brubaker (Chung Chen photo)

The conditions—70 minutes … seven named works by Philip Glass…a dark house―left this listener only somewhat prepared for what might follow when Bruce Brubaker took to the Williams Hall stage last night for the Foundation for Chinese Performing Arts.

We heard Metamorphoses 2, 4, and 3, The Poet Acts (a transcription, but the source was not stated), Two Pages that sounded like just one, Wichita Vortex Sutra, a title that sounded like Frederic Rzewski or perhaps Harry Partch, though more likely Rzewski, and Mad Rush which concluded the concert. The order (without any discernable programmatic arc) didn’t seem to matter, especially because the three metamorphoses mostly shared the same character with a number of melodic elements in common: principally diatonic, triadic in a major-minor system with much A minor, some D minor or G minor, incessantly repeated in four-bar phrases, and ever with a left-hand oscillating ostinato of a major or minor third. The pianist’s left-hand fingering was especially remarkable; he almost never used his thumb except in chordal textures. A notably melodic motto perhaps coming from (of all things) the Adagietto from Mahler’s Fifth Symphony, might have been intentional.

Brubaker’s extensive essay reads in part: “There can be no notes prone to stick out, no unmatched voicing of hammer felts, no unequal regulation of the action mechanism.” This seemed of particular importance in Two Pages, with its repeating ostinato of two, then three, and ultimately five pitches (G, C, D, E flat, F), always in ascending order in increasingly larger fragments, then gradually smaller, retreating to a minimum of two pitches in palindromic fashion until the end about ten minutes later. Brubaker’s un-dazzling evenness of tone, mechanical perfection, and unchanging dynamic astounded as a tour de force of digital regulation and control.

Mad Rush expanded the Metamorphosis trifecta, including some of the left-hand ostinati and right-hand reachovers, but with added right-hand sextuplet broken chords and well-contrasted fortissimo dynamics. The sectional structure, well set off with refrains, was plain. “Once, when I went to play for him, Philip said, just as I was about to begin Mad Rush, ‘Let’s see what you have to say in this piece,” Brubaker related. I heard a few non-contextual dissonances, but I don’t think they were errors, even though they stood out.

I listened to this generous array of minimalist splendor with focused attention at least 95% of the time, searching for the hypnotic and oneiric rather than the soporific. Nor am I certain about when Glass composed these numbers, but I think they are mostly early; they do not much resemble his later Etudes in their tonal outlines.

The works evoked personal memories:

John Cage’s koans in Indeterminacy (Silence, p. 266): “…The student kept on asking questions. Finally David Tudor looked at him and said, ‘If you don’t know, why do you ask?’.” I also recalled a performance of Alan Hovhaness’s Khaldis Concerto in 1961, when I played the solo, with many repeated notes, and all over again in 1993. The world broadcast premiere of Satie’s Véxations that took place over WMFO in 1994 and the first movement (G-sharp minor) of Alkan’s Concerto for solo piano, op. 39, no. 8, in John Ogden’s explosive recording suggested themselves too.

Opening, the single encore, sounded like Metamorphosis 2 but lasted only about three or four minutes.

Mark DeVoto, musicologist and composer, is an expert on the music of Alban Berg, Debussy, and other early 20th-century composers. A graduate of Harvard College (1961) and Princeton (Ph.D., 1967), he has published on many music subjects, and edited the revised fourth (1978) and fifth (1987) editions of Harmony by his teacher Walter Piston.


2 Comments [leave a civil comment (others will be removed) and please disclose relevant affiliations]

  1. I found this performance intensely moving. In the particular combination of these pieces in this space and time, like a ritual. The powerful emotions came across in a remarkable plain-spoken way. This was not the “performed” emotion of some classical music, but a deeply honest authenticity of the contemporary world. As if by magic, the morning after the concert, NPR was playing Brubaker’s recording of “Opening” as the backing for a news story about soldiers in Ukraine.

    Comment by Hanna — August 18, 2023 at 2:34 pm

  2. At this concert I’m almost certain that the pianist was improvising the connecting passages and intros that linked together all the compositions. Those “references” to Mahler were a commentary by Mr. Brubaker. Much like the way Josef Hofmann or many of the old pianists provided linking material in their recitals of music by Chopin.

    Comment by Rui S. — August 19, 2023 at 11:39 pm

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