An experiment in interpretation and composition, Carolina Performing Arts‘ evening of The Complete Piano Etudes by Philip Glass was an immersive, unforgettable experience.

Take the empty stage at pre-show: nine empty piano benches sitting in a row behind a Steinway grand piano, where the tenth sits. The newly renovated Hill Hall provides an expansive atmosphere for the audience to sit in while the amount of negative space that gives the hall its huge glory focuses the eye down center to the performer. This concert venue is the one exception to CPA’s ten-day Glass at 80: A Celebration of Philip Glass festival; all other performances will be (or have been) held at Memorial Hall.

Written over the course of 11 years, the ten piano etudes explore Glass’ sheer love for the performer and, specifically, interpretation of creative work. In a talk with a panel of young artists the following day, he spoke on how he wanted each performer to take his work and make it their own. He equates them to Bach: “If you look at the music, there’s nothing written in the music,” meaning that Bach did not dictate to his performers how to play his pieces, he let them add their own style to them. Glass does the same.

For this program, ten highly skilled pianists from all walks of life and training came together, each given a pair of etudes to perform in their own interpretive style.

The master himself was up first. The two pieces, both more reflective than the ones to follow, gave the composer space to explore variations of dynamics that brought the piece deeper connotations than what was heard on his own recording of them.

And who would be brave enough to follow Glass but Margaret Lynch, a current junior piano student at the university. As fierce in her performing as she is in her choosing to follow the master himself, Lynch gave a stand-out (dare I say, break-out) performance. Her interpretation beautifully combined her youthful passion with impressively effortless technique, no doubt learned with the help of her teacher Clara Yang who opened the second half of the concert. Lynch is someone to watch, whether that is locally or nationally; she more than proved herself worthy of her spot on the program.

Mick Rossi, a composer and 16-year Glass collaborator, donning a leather jacket and intense concentration, gave a heart-wrenching performance of Etudes 5 and 6. His slightly slower tempo of No. 5 gave the piece a cinematic sound that wove well into No. 6. In weaving the two together, he presented the arc of both etudes as a journey of Glass the composer and of Rossi’s relationship with Glass which, given Rossi’s concentration, is one of the utmost respect.

While Rossi found the journey to be one of a friend and colleague, Jenny Lin uncovered a journey in Nos. 7 and 8, through a heart broken – repaired and wounded. Her full-body immersion into the pieces unearthed the sound of love lost, connecting with the music not only as a performer but as a human being.

If Lin’s performance was felt with everyone’s entire heart, Michael Reisman‘s closing of the first half (Nos. 9 and 10) was felt in the head. As skilled an interpreter as Glass is a composer, Reisman dissected the piece to its essentials through precision and technique and left audience breathless.

Yang, a UNC faculty member and teacher of Lynch, gave an exciting, athletic performance of Nos. 11 and 12, finding the experimental rhythms in the counterpoint and accentuating the variants Glass reused from Etudes 1-10 for this. Following Yang, Aaron Diehl gave a rhapsodic performance of 13 and 14.

The deeper we began to dive into the second part of the evening, the realization that we were hearing Glass mature as a composer became an exhilarating fact. In Diehl’s performance, we heard the influences that jazz and pop had on Glass. Diehl was playing melody lines atop bass line rhythms that can only be heard and found in those genres.

However, it was Timo Andres‘ performance who reminded us that Glass, while experimental in combining bits and pieces of different genres into his works, never once lost his touch for writing for the pianist. Andres, a composer as well, played his assigned works with a natural ease that did not seem controlled by practicing, but by Glass’ understanding of the performer’s range of possibilities. Andre’s etudes possessed an ethereal quality about them, no doubt brought out by the mastery of the works themselves.

Closing out the evening were piano legends Anton Batagov and Maki Manekawa, both giving the most emotionally stirring performances of the evening. To hear both, each masters of Classical piano repertoire, perform these with the same love they would a Goldberg Variation or Art of the Fugue, gave the evening a deeply resonating impact that was hard to shake following the concert.

To those who may not know Glass’ work, the evening was a healthy entree of his composing career, following the ways by which he toys and plays with conventions that he has made a career out of perfecting. For those Glass purists, it was an incredible evening of interpretation and creative collaboration. For everyone who attended (a sold-out house), it unearthed a side of Glass that many often miss – the passionate composer whose work can be felt in the head and the heart. At various times throughout the concert, the pianists would look up and smile or, in staring at their instrument, give a crooked smile. It was as if they knew that Glass wrote it for the performer to enjoy it. They respect him because he respects them.

The Glass at 80 performances continue until February 10 in Chapel Hill. See our calendar for details.