By Ted AYALA
The accolades received at the premiere of Philip Glass’ “Symphony No. 9” on Thursday, April 5 at Disney Hall, its enigmatic close with cellos and basses plummeting the depths after an eerily oscillating figure for strings and celesta, had a whiff of a storybook ending to it. Not that Glass’ career is over – far from it. At 75 Philip Glass is still going stronger than ever, with the premiere of his “Symphony No. 10” looming later this year, among many other large-scale projects. Rather, there was something distinctly American about the career of the man who once was the outsider in the American musical establishment, having to take odd jobs moving furniture or hustling as a cab driver in order to pay the bills and keep himself fed. Now, over 40 years later, he is feted as one of the central pillars – if not the central pillar – of the modern-day American contemporary musical scene.
That he has accomplished this by embracing traditional forms often shunned by others – and excelling at them – provides an ironic twist. But it is this sense of surprise, as well as his ability to navigate steadily in a musical idiom suffused with the influence of the past while remaining uniquely modern and original, that has long been one of the most compelling qualities in the music and career of Philip Glass.
His “Ninth Symphony,” which had been co-commissioned by the Bruckner Orchestra of Linz, Carnegie Hall, and the Los Angeles Philharmonic, was no different. Indeed, it represents a crystallization and focal point of these various tendencies. As ever we have the moody major/minor modulations, the unstoppable power and drive of his motor rhythms, his always brilliant sense of color. Added to these we have ideas that embrace the past without ever becoming lost in it.
There was the Brucknerian grandeur of the middle movement, with granite chords right out of the Austrian composer’s late symphonies. In the outer movements, it was Mahler and Shostakovich that reared their heads with their quasi-martial themes scored for cackling winds and thumping percussion.
But in the end it was unmistakably Glass, no longer the stereotypical “minimalist.” If anything, the symphony was “maximalist” in the scope of its architecture and the breadth of its themes.
He may not often be mentioned on the list of great symphonists, but you’ll wonder why after hearing this work. It can be argued that there may be no more compelling exponent of the symphony – that much maligned genre whose obituary has been so often written – than Philip Glass. Among great symphonies, his Ninth surely holds its place among Beethoven, Mahler, Brahms, Shostakovich and others.
John Adams, himself labeled a “minimalist” despite composing music that is anything but, led the Los Angeles Philharmonic that evening. Included in the program was his remarkable “Violin Concerto” from 1993 – already a repertoire staple for contemporary violinists.
With only a few more weeks left before she is expected to give birth to her child, Leila Josefowicz, long an exponent of Adams’ work, took the bow and center stage in the concerto. It was interesting to consider whether imminent motherhood had softened and tamed this once feisty violinist. Gone was the edginess of her earlier years, replaced, instead, by warmth and a strongly honed sense of lyric beauty. Nowhere was this more evident than in the rapturous “Chaconne,” where she weaved endless streams of honeyed melody. Still, her old self made a show in the work’s cadenza, where you could practically see the rosin flying off her instrument.
From across the Atlantic Ocean, past the Baltic Sea came the “Cantus In Memorian Benjamin Britten” by Arvo Pärt. Often played as a solemn meditation, Adams instead had the work pulsating with a vigorous energy that made for a vivid reexamination of this melancholy work.
For those that couldn’t make it to this memorable occasion, weep no more: the concert will be available on iTunes via DG Concerts by the time you read this review.