Philip Glass - Live At The Opera House - 12th January 1996

I went and saw Philip Glass perform live at the Sydney Opera House in January 1996. Solo Piano. That was when I discovered that it is far better to listen to Glass' Solo Piano than to watch it. Watching it was terribly demoralising.

The performance was part of the Sydney Festival and I suspect that a lot of people had come along because it was part of the Festival and not because they knew his music and knew what to expect. During the first half, we listened to Opening, Witchita Vortex Sutra and Five Metamorphoses. The couple beside me kept fidgeting all through the performances and seemed disturbed. They were looking at the young section of the audience cheering wildly as interval started, and I overheard comments about "ill-educated audiences lacking in basic musical taste", and other very derogatory comments.

During interval, a young American couple approached me because I was holding a programme. I was asked if the second half was going to be like the first half. I explained what was coming and said that basically Yes, it would be the same. They said Oh, and thanked me. I asked if that was good or bad, and they said Bad, and they left. When we went back for the second half of the show, the couple beside me were not there, and neither were about a third of the audience. There were big gaps everywhere and it was very, very noticeable.

In the second half, we heard The Fourth Knee Play and Six Etudes, which included the world premiere of Etude #6, specially commissioned by the Sydney Festival, and an excerpt from Satyagraha. At the end of that, there was wild cheering and clapping from the seats containing very young people dressed very casually, and very little applause from the rest of the audience. Then came several encores.

There was one thing that grated throughout the concert. Glass kept his hands almost exclusively in the middle of the keyboard. There was very little range on the keyboard. But regularly, his right hand would cross over to the far left and press and hold down one key for a deep dungggg sound effect. The first time this happened, most of the audience just blinked and didn't take much notice of it. Then it became very, very annoying. When he did it, I would grit my teeth, and the audience would give a low grunt of annoyance. As I left the hall, I heard almost everyone commenting on this irritating habit. I heard at least six blue-rinse ladies say that if he did it one more time, they were going to scream. It was supremely irritating and it made most people concentrate on his hands, and that certainly detracted from the music.

I left the concert in despair. All I could think of as I left the hall was wondering if Glass knew he was a fraud or if was just deluding himself as well as us. It was a bad moment and I was terribly disillusioned. I kept thinking about Ayn Rand and The Fountainhead, and her claim that somewhere along the track a group of American art critics had deliberately set out to destroy the good in art, and promote the mediocre, and that the end result of that campaign was Philip Glass and Solo Piano.

During the next week, I didn't listen to much music. And then the ABC replayed their recording of that concert. And this time, I enjoyed it a lot. It sounded great. Because I didn't have to watch the silly performance (especially that annoying right hand crossing over to far left to give that silly dunggggg), I could concentrate on how it sounded, and it sounded good. Even that irritating deep note had its place and you could hear how it fitted, how it was necessary for the music. But it looked so completely stupid and irritating yet it needed to be there. That was when I realised that Solo Piano needed to be heard and shouldn't be watched. If you watch it, you want to strangle Philip Glass. If you listen to it, you can enjoy and appreciate the music.

Other Reviews of the performance