Glass on Glass

October 22, 2010

When violinist Robert McDuffie commissioned a new concerto from Philip Glass he made just one request.

“He wanted four movements,” said the composer Thursday morning, adding that McDuffie also wanted the work to be subtitled, The American Four Seasons.

“It was not an unreasonable idea,” said Glass. “But it wasn’t something I thought of. I said, ‘Well, I really don’t know what the seasons mean.’ And he said, ‘Well, there are four of them.’ And I said, ‘Okay, okay.’ I think it’s fine.”

Unveiled last December in Toronto, the composer’s Violin Concerto No. 2, The American Four Seasons, will receive its Chicago premiere Sunday afternoon at the Harris Theater, performed by McDuffie and the Venice Baroque Orchestra. The new concerto will be preceded by Vivaldi’s Four Seasons.

Though Glass said he began composing the concerto without any thought of Vivaldi, the omnipresent popularity of the Baroque composer’s set of four violin concertos may have had some unlooked-for impact in Glass ascribing a distinct expressive profile to each movement.

“The way the piece was written I thought there were certain emotional qualities to each [season],” he said. “They’re not alike; they each strike out in a very different direction.

“Winter can be very dark and very quiet. Or there can be storms that are raging. Summer can be the same way.  And spring can be a glorious awakening of the earth. Or the Russians talk about spring as if the earth was cracking open.

“So I wanted each one to have a different emotional feel of its own. In that way it’s a reference point back to Vivaldi.”

While the dualistic quality of each season appealed to him, Glass elected not to specify which movement corresponded to which season, as his Italian predecessor famously did. And while the four movements of the concerto follow the natural time sequence (spring, summer, autumn, winter), the composer prefers not to identify which season leads off, allowing each audience member to discover the concerto on their own terms.

In fact, he and McDuffie had wholly divergent takes on which movement represented which season. That didn’t bother Glass at all.

“I said, ‘We have different ideas but that’s fine.’  And [McDuffie] said, ‘But which one is the right one?’ And I said, ‘There is no right one.’ And he said, “Well, what are we going to tell people?’ I said, ‘We’re not going to tell them anything. If you and I can’t agree, why should the audience agree?’

“So, we can have different views of the same season. And that’s the playfulness about it, in a certain way.”

One compositional aspect of the new concerto that intrigued Glass was finding a fresh approach to the tradition of solo cadenzas. “I wanted to readdress the whole issue,” he said. “Cadenzas have always been this strange unsettled question of who writes them, where do they go, and what are they?”

So in The American Four Seasons, Glass crafts each of the four movements with an introductory violin solo (one prelude and three interludes). “I like that as an idea very much,” he said. “I think that was one of the innovations of the piece.” Ever the practical composer, Glass noted, “It also gives him [solo] pieces he can play as a suite.”

At 40 minutes, the new work is substantially longer–by about fifteen minutes–than its predecessor, Glass’s 1987 Violin Concerto, which remains one of his most popular and frequently performed works. McDufffie and the orchestra are currently on a 35-city tour with the new concerto, which they will debut at Carnegie Hall November 10.

The composer was happy to hear that his Violin Concerto No. 2 would be performed on the second half, whereas new works are usually programmed first to prevent the exodus of more conservative audience members. “I’m glad it’s coming after intermission because that shows a certain confidence in the piece. It’s a nice acknowledgement.”

Besides, Glass added, “If they did the Vivaldi second, it would just sound strange.”

Robert McDuffie and the Venice Baroque Orchestra will perform Philip Glass’s Violin Concerto No. 2, The American Four Seasons, and Vivaldi’s Four Seasons 3 pm. Sunday at the Harris Theater.

For more information and musical excerpts of the new concerto, go to

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