The composer himself in attendance, a packed Royal Festival Hall was taken through three-and-a-half hours of Philip Glass and David Bowie talking to one another. Glass composed the first two works of his symphonic trilogy, based on Bowie’s late-70s triplet of albums (dubbed the Berlin Trilogy) in 1992 and 1996 respectively. Bowie’s originals were a maelstrom of experimentation, cooked up with Brian Eno and Tony Visconti, in the heady environment of Berlin's revolutionary electronic music scene. The symphonies find Glass alighting on sometimes untraceable ideas in selections of Bowie’s songs and responding with his own, uniquely Glassian creations.

Angélique Kidjo and the LCO
© Southbank Centre | Mark Allan

Glass’ Symphony no. 1Low”, based on the first album, seems the strongest of the three. In its own powerful and involving way it captures the swirling, almost queasy mystery of that album’s second side, full of its ground-breaking instrumentals fuelled by electronic and ambient experimentation. With three movements based on the songs Subterraneans, Some Are and Warszawa, the orchestra sounds full of an exhausted nervous energy, full of appealing and undulating woodwinds with a sense of increasing anxiety enacted by tense, militaristic percussion and swooning violins. Hugh Brunt, who also conducted the “Heroes” Symphony after the interval, led the London Contemporary Orchestra through a disciplined performance that gradually unspooled the symphony’s emotional knottiness, arriving to the beautiful acceptance of the finale’s final moments.

Symphony no. 4 “Heroes”, up next after the first of two intervals, is perhaps a more immediately accessible work, a six-movement suite that largely embraces a brighter mood, which Brunt and the LCO raised even higher with another focused performance, although it would have been nice to have seen a little more flamboyance here and there. With each movement again titled after a song from Bowie’s 1978 album, Glass has drawn fragments of themes or ideas from Bowie’s music to create at least one or two highly memorable themes, ironically creating a much more ‘pop’ sensibility on his classical reinterpretation than was present in Bowie’s original. Although the work feels less focused and satisfying than the “Low” Symphony, it has its own expansive reach and epic sense of breadth.

The first two symphonies, composed in the same decade, seem fairly close together in terms of technique and orchestration. It was interesting, then, to observe what changes might be wrought by the twenty-year interval to Glass’ finally completing his trilogy. After the final interval an enlarged orchestra was on the stage, with two harps and a greatly expanded percussion section, along with organist James McVinnie, conductor Robert Ames and Beninese singer Angélique Kidjo, for the performance of the Symphony no. 12 “Lodger”, Glass’s latest, and one that was clearly inhabited by a different instrumental imagination.

James McVinne, Philip Glass, Angélique Kidjo and Robert Ames
© Southbank Centre | Mark Allan

Rather than use Bowie’s musical ideas as inspiration for his own, in this latest reinterpretation Glass instead takes seven of the lyrics to 1979’s Lodger and sets them to entirely new music. There was both a strength and a weakness in this choice, as it seemed that the piece had a far less symphonic taste than its two predecessors, and rather gave the air of a song cycle of rather Mahlerian ambition and orchestral breadth.

Glass wrote the work with the formidable voice and presence of Kidjo in mind, and she gave a performance of deep presence and strength, her voice beginning in a purposeful, chromatic drone that followed Glass’ chromatic lines, but drawing the audience in a journey of gradual expansion and emotion as the symphony progressed. The music itself is lush and formidable, overlaid by the presence of the Royal Festival Hall’s imposing organ which acts as a forceful parent to the orchestra. The music packs a sucker punch of variety and energy into its fifty minutes and shows that Glass’ liveliness has not dimmed one bit – perhaps the opposite. Driven from the Weimar Cabaret-esque energy of Boys Keep Swinging to the deadly organ on Repetition, from its sudden jumps and starts to its declamatory whoosh of a conclusion, Lodger was a totally unexpected leap in direction from its siblings, and though far from perfect, was often thrilling.

A barnstorming ovation greeted the elder statesman as he rose from his seat. We can only hope there are more symphonies to come, if he is still capable of something as strange and different as the “Lodger” .