When conductor/pianist Dennis Russell Davies directed our Lou Harrison concert in February he said, “You know I’m retiring from my regular [conducting] gig in Linz, and now I’d like to do a benefit for Other Minds.” So he and his partner Maki Namekawa, both of whom work closely with Philip Glass, returned to the Bay Area from Austria to perform a special concert of Glass’ music for two pianos in a very intimate setting for our fans. The event took place 7:30pm, Wednesday, December 6, 2017, at St. John’s Presbyterian Church in Berkeley, in honor of Glass’ eightieth birthday. It featured the suites from Jean Cocteau’s Les Enfants Terribles and La Belle et la Bête for two pianos and wind octet in its American premiere. A major work composed for the Davies-Namekawa duo–which Dennis fondly calls “a real barnburner!”–Four Movements for Two Pianos, completed the program.
Music For Two Pianos: Program Notes
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 it, 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While the lineage of composer/pianists is a long and illustrious list, it is perhaps only superseded by the list of famous conductor/pianists.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.
Composing for the piano has remained a constant since Glass wrote those first pieces for Davies, the Études Book 1 (1994). Even beyond keyboard pieces, no other performer has done more to inspire, instigate, nurture and champion the music of Philip Glass than has Dennis Russell Davies. For the recording of Études Book 2 (2014), Maki Namekawa was the immediate choice. She 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.
It has been a particularly fruitful musical collaboration in perhaps the most intimately personal medium. 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.
This evening’s performance begins with the suite from the opera Les Enfants terribles exploring the expressive possibilities of multiple pianos. The opera is the third part of a trilogy of operas based on the works of Jean Cocteau. “Les Enfants” is a story of quasi- incest between siblings, jealousy, and mind games. This period represented a great turning in Glass’ music towards more emotional and mature 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).
Tonight, Other Minds presents the American premiere of the suite from Cocteau’s La Belle et la Bête for two pianos and eight winds. La Belle et la Bête (1946) is Glass’ second opera based on works by Cocteau and a classic of French cinema. The original version is performed in conjunction with the projected film (with the original version soundtrack eliminated entirely) and the dialogue is sung.
Cocteau’s is the first definitive version of the fairy tale (the second being Walt Disney’s version of 1991). Through Cocteau’s extraordinary cinematic alchemy, the ordinary world is transformed into a dreamlike and poetic world of magic. The power of the creative and natural realms, represented respectively by Beauty and the Beast, finally emerges and allows the world of imagination to take flight.
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.
Four Movements for Two Pianos builds widely upon 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 the supplementary notes Glass introduces to the harmonies that are at first heard as “wrong” are quickly heard in their proper context. 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.
Concert Media: Video
Suite from Les Enfants Terrible
movements 5 and 6
Maki Namekawa and Dennis Russell Davies play movements 5 (Elizabeth Chooses a Career) and 6 (Death of the Twins/Finale) of Philip Glass’s Suite from Les Enfants Terrible. Recorded on December 6, 2017, at St. John’s Presbyterian Church in Berkeley, CA, during Philip Glass: Music For Two Pianos, a benefit concert for Other Minds.
Music from the opera La Belle et la Bête
Movement 1, Overture
Maki Namekawa and Dennis Russell Davies, accompanied by the Other Minds Ensemble, play the 1st movement of Music from the opera La Belle et la Bête, by Philip Glass. The piece was recorded live in concert, at St. John’s Presbyterian Church in Berkeley, CA, December 6, 2017.
Four Movements for Two Pianos
Movement 2, “Quarter note = 84,”
Movement 2 of Philip Glass’s Four Movements for Two Pianos, played by Maki Namekawa and Dennis Russell Davies. Recorded December 6, 2017, at St. John’s Presbyterian Church in Berkeley, CA, during the concert “Philip Glass: Music For Two Pianos,” a benefit for Other Minds.
Concert Media: Audio
Movement 1, Overture
Suite from Les Enfants Terrible
Maki Namekawa and Dennis Russell Davies play the Overture from Suite from Les Enfants Terrible, by Philip Glass. The pieces were recorded live in concert, at St. John’s Presbyterian Church in Berkeley, CA, December 6, 2017.
Movement 7, Metamorphosis
La Belle et la Bête
Maki Namekawa, Dennis Russell Davies, and the Other Minds Ensemble, play movement 7, “Metamorphosis,” from La Belle et la Bête, by Philip Glass. Recorded at St. John’s Presbyterian Church in Berkeley, CA, December 6, 2017.
Four Movements for Two Pianos
Maki Namekawa and Dennis Russell Davies play movement iv from Four Movements for Two Pianos, by Philip Glass. Recorded in concert, at St. John’s Presbyterian Church in Berkeley, CA, December 6, 2017.