As Philip Glass’ Symphony No. 9 ground to a halt last Thursday night, cellos and basses trailing off into silence, a few things came into focus. First, there was no missing the irony that Philip Glass, once among the outsiders of the musical world, should nearly a half century later find himself one of the American school of composition's most revered composers; perhaps its dean. Compounding this irony is that Glass has achieved this stature by not only remaining true to his own voice, but also by working and excelling in genres seemingly unlikely from his pen during his early years: opera, cantata, and symphony. Yet not only is there an undeniable rightness in the trajectory of Glass’ career, but there is also something wonderfully American about it. The tale of the bohemian who in his youth worked as a furniture mover, plumber, and cabbie, among other odd jobs, in order to make ends meet, now acclaimed as one of the world’s greatest composers has an air about it that is positively Capraesque.
The symphony - which lasts approximately 50 minutes and is a co-commission between the Bruckner Orchestra of Linz, Carnegie Hall, and the Los Angeles Philharmonic - was steeped deeply in the sounds of Glass’ symphonic forbears. Beethoven was immediately recalled in the wavering figure that opened the work, distantly echoing the opening of the older composer’s own Ninth. The block chords of Bruckner loomed large in the middle movement, while Shostakovichian march-like motives scored shrilly for unison winds and rat-ta-tat percussion haunted the outer movements.
But throughout it was Philip Glass’ unique voice, and vintage Glass at that, that spoke most forcefully; unifying all these influences into a cohesive whole, producing a work of compelling power and beauty. This was Glass not only as the undeniable master of symphonic form he has become, but also as the master colorist he always has been. Employing a large orchestra augmented by a massive percussion battery, Glass painted his musical ideas with telling sureness and subtlety. The luminous chords of the middle movement, with the composer’s characteristic stepwise modulations, or the striking eeriness of the symphony’s coda, with its oscillating celesta and strings revealed the composer at the height of inspiration. It was without question a masterwork form this composer; one which powerfully sets the seal on his greatness as a symphonic composer.
At the helm of the Los Angeles Philharmonic was John Adams, whose own music owes an enormous debt to Glass. Like Glass, he began his career in the fringes of the musical world where he now occupies pride of place. And like his predecessor Adams has forged a body of work that is inimitably his.
His Violin Concerto from 1993 preceded the intermission that was followed by the Glass symphony. Entrenched firmly as a modern classic of the violin repertoire, it is among Adams’ finest works. Leila Josefowicz was the soloist, playing with lyrical restraint, as opposed to her usual sharper etched style. She polished the concerto’s edges into finely smoothed contours, stressing the work’s melodic strength. The first movement’s perpetual motion aria was sculpted with grace and precision; the middle movement Chaconne played with rapt tenderness. Her cadenza, however, crackled with her characteristic fire and energy.
Opening the concert was a taut reading of Arvo Pärt’s Cantus In Memoriam Benjamin Britten. Surging with vitality, it was a remarkably fresh sounding interpretation of a work often played as a melancholy meditation. Gripping the listener was not only Adams’ sense of pacing, but also the sheer weight of the Los Angeles Philharmonic strings.
An outstanding occasion exhibiting orchestra, conductor, and composers at their summits - fittingly preserved for release on iTunes in the near future.