American Composers Orchestra – Philip Glass 75th-Birthday Concert

Lamentate [New York premiere]
Symphony No.9 [Co-commissioned by Carnegie Hall, Los Angeles Philharmonic, and Bruckner Orchester Linz: US premiere]

Maki Namekawa (piano)

American Composers Orchestra
Dennis Russell Davies

Reviewed by: Lewis M. Smoley

Reviewed: 31 January, 2012
Venue: Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall, New York

Philip GlassTo celebrate Philip Glass’s seventy-fifth birthday, the American Composers Orchestra offered the American premiere of his Ninth Symphony.

A ninth symphony has been considered something of a milestone ever since the precedent-setting Beethoven Ninth, with its vocal and orchestral forces. Although other nineteenth-century composers did not live to complete a tenth, Glass seems unconcerned with either superstition or precedent. His Ninth is simply an expansive three-movement work for orchestra that continues and, to some degree, builds on the particular brand of minimalism that pervades his previous works.

Sharing the concert, and opening it, if not particularly in-keeping with the celebratory mood generated by Glass’s birthday, Arvo Pärt’s Lamentate, written ten years ago, is inspired by the statute of the tragic ancient-Greek hero Marsyas, sculpted by Anish Kapoor and displaying in Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall in London. According to the myth, as presented in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Marsyas challenged Apollo to a contest, the winner of which could treat the loser as he wished. Naturally, Apollo won, and for Marsyas’s hubris in daring to pit his abilities against the god, Apollo had him flayed alive and nailed his skin to a pine tree. Although Pärt’s work is predicated upon death and suffering, he suggests that it is “not for the dead, but for the living … who don’t have it easy in dealing with the pain and hopelessness of this world.”

Dennis Russell DaviesLamentate (lasting just under 40 minutes) is written in a single movement of two contrasting moods: “brutal-overwhelming” and “intimate-fragile”. Their conflicting development unites the piece. The pianist engages not in technical display but in mood-setting composed of single tones in sequence. An atmosphere of ancient grandeur pervades the work from the opening soft, heraldic brass calls to their grave reprise at the close. As with much of Pärt’s recent compositions, a sober, meditative glaze hovers over the music, from which fragmentary phrases emerge quietly, build gradually to a peroration, as if to honor the fallen hero, and then recede back into mystical solemnity. Far from a mournful dirge, the music conveys a sense of remorse much in keeping with the temperament of the ancient Greeks, a stoic sense of stalwart self-control in the face of torturous pain and suffering. During the middle section, modal harmonies and an aulos-like oboe solo evoke an austere atmosphere, punctuated by repeating drum taps like the beating of time. Maki Namekawa (Dennis Russell Davies’s wife) played her part in generating long melodic lines with impressive sensitivity that evoked a sense of life’s unfathomable mystery. The ACO played well for the most part, although occasional ragged entrances and intonation problems, primarily in exposed chorale-like passages in the brass, were disconcerting.

The second half of the concert was devoted to Glass’s symphony, the composer in attendance, the work reflecting the principal characteristics of his long-established compositional style. These include long stretches of interwoven figuration that vary only with a change in harmonic basis, and creative use of different instrumental combinations, here made even more colorful and diverting by the addition of various percussion instruments. The integrated strands of shifting rhythms and harmonies generate forward motion as they chug along, sometimes seeming endless, even unendurable. Yet the music is not devoid of linear material, which consists principally of ascending or descending scales or broken triadic figures, usually played over churning rhythmic patterns, which become more or less contrapuntal by turns. Even when they build up a head of steam presumably in sight of some indeterminate goal, instead of reaching it, the music simply stops dead in its tracks, and then switches to another musical plane, often by way of reprise of an earlier contrasting segment. This can be just as disconcerting in Glass’s music as it is in Mahler’s.

In the finale, chimes enter when the music reaches the height of dramatic intensity. Then a feeling of tender sentiment seems to reveal itself, providing relief after the rigors of forcefully played cross-rhythms. At the close, the soft ascending scales and sustained Brucknerian chords of the opening return, but provide no clue to any conceptual meaning or intention. Those mesmerized by Glass’s network of shifting rhythmic patterns will relish this work for its occasional hypnotic effect and for diverting orchestral coloration. Once again the ACO, with which Glass has been intimately connected for many years, performed the work admirably, with only occasional lapses due to intonation problems.

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