Glass the minimalist turns symphonic maximalist in his Ninth

February 01, 2012
By Corinna da Fonseca-Wollheim

Philip Glass's Symphony No. 9 received its American premiere Tuesday night by Dennis Russell Davies and the American Composers Orchestra at Carnegie Hall.

Ten years ago Philip Glass marked his 65th birthday with a massive new work dense with nuclear-proliferation anxiety. His Symphony No. 6, also premiered at Carnegie Hall, was a monumental meeting of fin-de-siècle Weltschmerz and the minimalist techniques Glass first developed in the 1960s.

In the years since then, Glass has surprised his followers – and made a few converts among critics – by focusing his efforts on chamber music, with works like the achingly expressive Songs and Poems for solo cello, a luscious violin sonata, and a Partita for solo violin that evokes the ghost of Johann Sebastian Bach.

On Tuesday night, Carnegie Hall celebrated Glass’s 75th birthday, in which Dennis Russell Davies conducted the American Composers Orchestra in the American premiere of the Symphony No. 9.

The symphony is divided into three parts, with an expansive second movement forming the emotional core.  The forces assembled are formidable, including contrabass clarinet and bass trombone, piano, harp, celeste and a well-stocked kitchen of percussion instruments.

In the first movement, these are used to vivid effect with cheeky figures in the castanet tripping over Glass’ trademark oscillating strings.  A little later, the chugging stops and a melody, played by oboe and flute, emerges like a character from a crowd only to disappear again. The movement ends quietly with the sound of a woodblock tapping out a lilting rhythm, a bit like the gait unique to Icelandic horses.

The second movement, which at half an hour takes up two-thirds of the work’s running time, sees Glass reaching deep into his Romantic arsenal. The interlocking patterns of small rhythmic motifs might be vintage Glass, but some of the textures – luscious strings, harp, a solitary horn soaring above – look back to the nineteenth century. Here, too, a percussion instrument adds the occasional sly, subversive touch, this time a snare drum that sounds like a foot soldier from Shostakovich.

Anyone looking for the composer’s repetitive excess will find it here, in the throbbing arpeggios that go on for so long that when the harmony finally settles into a new gear, it’s as if the earth’s tectonic plates are shifting. At times, the broody textures evoke Sibelius, reminding us that ostinatos were not invented in a Downtown loft in the 1960s. But one sustained passage of frenetic scales made such heavy use of the piccolo and high-pitched percussion that it seemed Glass had written a truly contemporary symphony with an obbligato cell phone built in.

The final movement starts off modestly, with slow deconstructed arpeggios underneath a gleaming, looping trumpet. But after a return of the horsey woodblocks, the music grew increasingly complex with furiously ascending scales at different speeds competing for space and muddying the texture. There was a formidable crescendo towards the end that the ACO players seemed to relish, before a sudden piano ushered in the quiet, reflective ending.

As was the case ten years ago on the same stage for the premiere of Glass’s Sixth Symphony, Davies proved himself a passionate advocate of his friend’s music, conducting with an eye on the larger narrative threads while maintaining admirable clarity in the complex passages. The ACO, long acquainted with Glass’s music, seemed to remain undaunted by its rhythmic intricacies. Instead, players often stumbled over exposed notes with intonation problems in the violins and an inexcusable amount of split notes in the brass.

Glass decided to pair Tuesday’s premiere with Arvo Pärt’s Lamentate, a work for piano and symphony orchestra released on record in 2005 but here given its first New York performance. In the program notes, Davies writes of the “distant, yet recognizable symbiosis” between the two composers. What would a conversation between the American Buddhist and the Estonian mystic sound like?

In the event, spirituality of either denomination was in short supply. Lamentate, with its unusually assertive protagonist in the form of the solo piano, played by the flamboyant Maki Namekawa, sounded conventionally cinematic, next to Glass’s more richly expressive and brashly saturated scoring.

Dodgy brass playing also marred Lamentate, which begins with a halting conversation between timpani, trumpet and piano before erupting in massive tutti explosions.  Much of Pärt’s music is a study in the contrast between high and low, the ethereal and the earthy. Lamentate is no exception. But while the gentle passages are undeniably lovely, the forceful ones often smack of bombast and there is too little to tie them together. Namekawa played her part with sensitivity and passion, making her opening chords ring like bells and bringing a touching naivete to a later music-boxy passage. There were arresting moments – an oriental motif in the oboe, an elegiac series of scooping octaves in the cello — but whereas Pärt’s greatest works inhabit a sense of otherworldliness, here the craft was too often in plain view.

In that sense, it was perhaps a fitting counterpart to Glass’s Symphony No. 9. Both composers are capable of writing exquisitely contemplative, inward-looking music. Glass’s Ninth, with its multiple ethnic and historical references, shows the 75-year-old composer’s unbroken curiosity about the contemporary outside world — and the past.

4 Responses to “Glass the minimalist turns symphonic maximalist in his Ninth”

  1. Posted Feb 01, 2012 at 11:19 pm by Hence

    A gorgeous piece of music, one I’m sure will unravel further over time.

  2. Posted Feb 06, 2012 at 12:06 am by Sam Merciers

    Do you really think that Glass’s newest symphony “…shows the 75-year-old composer’s unbroken curiosity about the contemporary outside world…”? I found it far too long and far too boring. Glass barely looks outside his existing catalog for material. Also, I seem to have missed the “…rhythmic intricacies…” mentioned in the article. What I heard was Glass over and again gives us unrelated series of events with little rhythmic variation. Rather than transition from one section to the next, the music simply stops doing one thing and begins doing another. Not that complex transitions are a requirement, but considering he downbeat heavy (and not at all intricate) rhythmic approach and the relentlessness of the overall work, turning a few corners in a clever way would have helped his cause a great deal.

    This piece is going to be popular however, because it’s easy to ignore and doesn’t challenge listeners. It sounds to me like Glass didn’t challenge himself much either.

  3. Posted Feb 06, 2012 at 3:51 pm by Chris Carss

    I wonder if the article meant to say “contrabass trombone”? The regular bass trombone has been a standard part of the orchestra since the early 19th century. From all the low pitch growling I could hear in the performance on the radio today, I would say the contrabass members of the clarinet, bassoon, and trombone families are all there in this amazing new piece of music!

  4. Posted Feb 09, 2012 at 8:28 pm by Anthony Bannister

    Pieces that are easy to ignore generally become popular, yeah, that’s the way it works, sure.