Philip Glass had already broken through the so-called “Curse of The Ninth” after completing his Tenth Symphony in 2012 – a mere six months after his Ninth. And when that was over, came the speculations wondering whether his best symphonies (the Eighth and Ninth) were already behind him. I think we can safely say that this is not the case, as his Symphony no. 11 gives us a Philip Glass back in his signature repetitive style, following a five year break from his rather lackluster but adventurous Tenth. The work was co-commissioned by the Bruckner Orchestra Linz, and Istanbul Music Festival. The work is thematically very close to his 2015 Double Concerto for Two Pianos and Orchestra, also co-commissioned by another Turkish institution, the Borusan Istanbul Philharmonic Orchestra (BIPO) who were on stage with their artistic director and principal conductor Sascha Goetzel for this evening’s concert to play the symphony's Turkish première.

Sascha Goetzek conducts the Borusan Istanbul Philharmonic © Istanbul Music Festival
Sascha Goetzek conducts the Borusan Istanbul Philharmonic
© Istanbul Music Festival

Glass’ Eleventh echoes recent symphonies in structure, designed in three movements. The first movement’s initial invocation was definitely Brucknerian, almost a homage in its unrelenting dialogues between the strings and the brass with heavy duty falling on the shoulders of tuba and bass trombone. As it progressed, the movement reminded me of a Spanish Rhapsody with off-the-beat percussive strikes and Iberian chord progressions. The BIPO is a very fine orchestra, but it is primarily their brass and percussion sections that make them stand out, and during the first movement’s many interludes, it was the brass that kept the musical conversation interesting. What was most interesting about the first movement was the complex polyrhythms the composer has put into use. Although, on the surface, the ideas sounded simple enough, once you started to count the beats, you couldn’t easily make them out. It was on the heels of the increasing harmonic tension and rhythmic density that we arrived at the more serene second movement. The middle act, more reliant on strings, featured an uncharacteristically tranquil Sascha Goetzel, known for his joyous and festive style of conducting. As static as he was on the podium, that didn’t take away from his masterful fine-tuning of his orchestra. He frequently hushed the brass and the woodwinds in favour of the strings to accommodate for the excess reverberation of the hall. He slowly lifted the veil off his strong brass guns though, as the movement peaked towards a final eruption, provoking an early ovation from the audience.

Sascha Goetzel © Istanbul Music Festival
Sascha Goetzel
© Istanbul Music Festival

It was the third movement that proved both Glass and the BIPO at their best, however. This movement was mostly fast in its pacing, at times at marching tempo, at others, sprinting in a blissful discordance towards an eruption giving birth to a reincarnated leisurely stride. The orchestra’s percussion section did a very fine job in keeping the strings and other sections in check, as the music tends to get quite hectic, particularly near the end, as Glass presents one false cadenza after another. Goetzel, accordingly, became more and more animated and he really has to be commended for his total control over the orchestra, especially during the symphony’s chaotic but miraculous ending – one of the finest I’ve heard in any symphony.

Mari Samuelsen and Håkon Samuelsen © Istanbul Music Festival
Mari Samuelsen and Håkon Samuelsen
© Istanbul Music Festival

The second half of the evening was reserved for The Double Concerto for Violin and Cello, part of Philip Glass’ “The Concerto Project”, featuring siblings Mari Samualsen on violin and Hakon Samuelsen on cello. The composer’s unconventional take on the double concerto was originally conceived for the ballet Swan Song, and it is hard to miss the music’s yearning for a dance performance on stage. Each of the three movements is introduced with a tender duet section between the two solo instruments, as if between a male and a female dancer, followed by a more tempestuous orchestral section, originally written for a full dance company on stage. Without the dance elements present, however, the music falls flat, as if the audience is listening to a Bach concerto introduction that leads to the ether, rather than a contrapuntal and polyphonic orchestral composition. The duet sections were played gently and wistfully by the soloists, conjuring a romantic dialogue, void of any conflicts. The following orchestral parts, were also realized competently in vigour, diagonally opposing the soloists. In that sense, the concerto fulfills its premise of soloists against the orchestra, but when these two are not played in tandem, the effect is mostly lost. Be that as it may, the BIPO were in full form during the whole concerto with level dynamics and great rhythmic precision.

After repeated calls for an encore, the Samuelsen siblings came back on stage to  play the Handel-Halvorsen Passacaglia, an excellent concert-ender and a virtuosity showcase for the soloists.