Philip Glass Composer Portrait

Symphony No.3 (1995) [UK premiere]
Concerto Fantasy for two timpanists and orchestra (2000) [European premiere]
Symphony No.2 (1994) [UK premiere]

Jonathan Haas and John Chimes (timpani)
BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Marin Alsop

Reviewed by: Nick Breckenfield

Reviewed: 6 December, 2001
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

Philip Glass’s orchestral music does not feature particularly heavily in UK concerts. He is not a regular at the Proms (if he has been there at all), and there seems to be a bizarre inverse correlation between his non-appearance on concert programmes here and the fact that he is, without doubt, the world’s most commercially successful contemporary composer.

In an interview with’s Chris Caspell, Jonathan Haas mentions that one of the reasons the central work in this all-Glass concert was delayed was that Glass got paid $250,000 to write his opera The Voyage, about Columbus and the discovery of the America, for New York’s Met. Those sorts of figures for commissions must be the envy of every composer in the world, and yet – even in the operatic field – Britain hasn’t seen a full-scale Glass opera since the (admittedly dispiriting) The Making of the Representative of Planet 8 at ENO in 1988.

So the BBC Symphony Orchestra were making amends on Thursday night, not with Leonard Slatkin at the helm, but with another American conductor, Marin Alsop who, despite the claims of the two timpanists, was undoubtedly the star of the show. She is already making her name in Britain, with guest positions at both the City of London Sinfonia and the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, both shortly to be replaced by her Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra music directorship. Alsop gave commanding performances preceded by a discussion between Philip Glass and Roger Wright, controller of BBC Radio 3. This was the largest audience I’ve witnessed for the BBCSO since its move to the Barbican – even the second tier was open.

For those not au fait with Glass’s symphonic output, he wrote his first symphony at the age of 52, based on themes by David Bowie and Brian Eno, called Low Symphony. Numbers 2 and 3 were followed by Heroes Symphony, again based on Bowie and Eno, followed by the 100-minute, choral Symphony No.5. No.6 (with soprano soloist) is to be premièred next summer and No.7 has already been commissioned. (Glass is currently writing an opera about, and entitled, Galileo Galilei.) No.2 is for full symphony orchestra (the programme note suggested with the addition of an electric piano, but John Alley seemed to be playing a standard concert grand), while No.3 is for strings alone.

It was with No.3 – for nineteen strings – that the concert started. The opening movement is marked crotchet=112, has a Bartókian feel with a definite folksy, rustic pedigree – off-beat pulses and a pentatonic harmonic palate – which ebbed and flowed, with some bouncing pizzicato sneaking in towards the end. (Glass doesn’t seem to use Italian – or any other language – for tempo indications, only metronome markings with a preponderance for either crotchet=112, crotchet=144 and crotchet=176.) A unison rocking characterised the restless roving ’long-short-short’ phrases of the faster second movement (crotchet=144), again developing pizzicato tendencies in its latter half. The commission’s requirement for 19-solo parts led to the much denser textures of the third movement (back to crotchet=112), starting with typical Glass harmonic and arpeggio motifs and developing outwards, with a solo violin eventually rising high in a slow meandering theme of its own, again a recognisable Glass hallmark. Back to crotchet=144, the final movement emulates the second in its unison chugging that continuous almost unabated until the sudden dissolution into the serene final chord.

The Concerto Fantasy necessitated a radical stage-change, with seven timpani placed on each side of the conductor’s podium for the two soloists. A full orchestra, including percussion, was arrayed behind. The work got off to a thrilling start with a rhythmic phrase like that underpinning the theme music to “Mission Impossible” (in the pre-concert talk Glass said he didn’t watch TV and that no-one had taken him to court for plagiarism).

Couched in three movements (yes, the first was crotchet=144, the last crotchet=176, with the ’slow’ movement moving between crotchet=96-104), with a cadenza bridging the final two movements, Concerto Fantasy is virtuoso with no favouritism between the parts. The most baffling facet of the work was the inexplicably uninteresting way that Glass asks his soloists to use their instruments. We are so used to percussionists being able to create new sounds; even Elgar asks for a coin to be placed on the skin to evoke a distant ship’s engine in Enigma Variations. Glass asks his timpanists to hit an unadorned instrument at all times, almost exclusively with hard sticks. It’s good fun to watch, and the first movement also includes one of those swooping themes for the orchestra that would work well in a super-hero film (a theme, incidentally, that is singularly lacking in John Williams’s score for ’Harry Potter’). When Berlioz, nearly two-hundred years ago, was writing innovatively for multiple timpani, and Nielsen’s pair of timpanists were outdoing each other a century later in his Fourth Symphony, one has to wonder whether Glass has put the timpani’s cause back 250 years with this work.

The Second Symphony is in three movements (first two movements: crotchet=112, last movement crotchet=176). Big-boned and almost at all times thickly layered, with section playing with or against section, Glass’s seeming reluctance or inability to write solo lines began to clog the ear and mind. Yes, the opening, sombre minor-key movement allows a cor anglais to purvey a melancholy theme, and there is a notable piccolo solo later in the work, but those examples prove to be the exception to the thick-textured rule, which even Alsop’s expert conducting couldn’t disguise.

I was reminded of Shostakovich, but he would have allowed the acerbic wind to break into the first movement on their own rather than having to fight through the already cloying string textures and rhythms. There are those that will probably gag at the thought of my comparing Glass to perhaps the greatest symphonist of the twentieth-century, but there is no denying the appeal of Glass’s music. I can easily react to Glass’s naïve harmonic trajectories, and be mesmerised by his slowly changing palate of rhythmic subtleties, while also bemoaning the fact that he isn’t more radical. He said, when asked whether he minded an all-Glass programme, that because he is also a player (solo piano and he has his own Ensemble), he only programmes his own music. This begs the question as to how much other contemporary music he has time to listen to. His works, still based on minimalist repetition of musical cells, while immediately recognisable, have not progressed much from his first compositions. To some that suggests serious limitations; to others, it’s a sign of genius.

I wonder if the true test would be to see how his symphonies fare when programmed with other composers. While the Concert Fantasy is a rather silly, if enjoyable party-piece, I think the string-based Third Symphony could easily hold its own with say Shostakovich, Bartók, Dvorák or Elgar. The Second Symphony would more likely be found wanting against such a wealth of inventive symphonic competition.

This concert was, in addition to being broadcast live on Radio 3, telecast on BBC Knowledge and over the Internet, the first time the BBC/Barbican joint-project of installing smart-TV technology has been used.The Barbican Centre used this ’Composer Portrait’ to announce its first major festival of 2003, when “Philip on Film” will bring Glass and his Ensemble for five nights to the Barbican Hall (7-11 January). Playing live to full-screen projections, the series includes his seminal film scores, ’Koyaanisqatsi’ and ’Powaqqatsi’, his new scores to classic early films, Cocteau’s ’La Belle et la Bête’ and Todd Browning’s ’Dracula’ (with Bela Lugosi), and an evening of specially commissioned short films.

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