Named after their splendid neoclassical home in the heart of Berlin, the Konzerthausorchester Berlin is overlooked by the busts of the great classical and romantic composers. Minimalism was once the preserve of young American radical upstarts that eschewed the heritage of their continental equivalents – composers such as Philip Glass and John Adams have done much to put this music at the heart of global orchestral concert culture.

Dennis Russell Davies © Reinhard Winkler
Dennis Russell Davies
© Reinhard Winkler

Dennis Russell Davies is a long-standing champion of American minimalism. A close friend of Philip Glass, Russell Davies encouraged the composer to start writing orchestral music in his middle age, and premiered all but one of his subsequent symphonies. For his guest appearance with the Konzerthaus Orchestra last weekend, Russell Davies performed music by Glass and Adams alongside Bruckner’s Symphony no. 1 in C minor.

Adams’ The Chairman Dances is a companion piece to his opera Nixon in China, inspired by the image of Mao Tse-Tung dancing with his mistress Chiang Ch’ing, the future Madame Mao. Described by Adams as a “foxtrot for orchestra”, the piece sets the soaring melodies and lush harmonies of the ballroom against a propulsive minimalist orchestral backdrop. It is a rambunctious piece in which the Konzerthaus Orchestra had a whale of a time, as well as proving themselves to be a vibrant, nimble and precise ensemble.

Chad Hoopes, a 21-year-old American violinist with a prodigal talent, joined Russell Davies for Glass’ Violin Concerto no. 1. This was a brave choice of solo concerto for Hoopes’ Berlin debut. Glass’ first orchestral work is a deliberately accessible work composed for a kind of metropolitan American everyman – musically uneducated but culturally engaged. It is also a fiendishly difficult work for both soloist and ensemble.

The concerto bears the hallmarks of Glass’ classic minimalist style – repeated harmonic progressions, rhythms and arpeggios are the building blocks for interlocking musical cycles. It requires incredible clarity to hear the inner workings of the orchestral machine, but the ensemble didn’t quite click into place until the third movement, where they found a nice propulsion and steady groove. The violinist is often required to be more textural than soloistic, but Hoopes did well to keep up with the constant onslaught of rapid arpeggios. His encore, the Gigue from Bach’s Partita in E Major, was full of youthful joy.

Glass has recognised the importance of the romantic symphonists for his later orchestral writing. Bruckner stands at the very centre of this heritage. A conflicted figure – and a bit of an oddball by all accounts – he was a natural traditionalist and defender of the Germanic symphonic tradition, but also an avid disciple of Wagner, with a passion for his gargantuan and dramatic music. Bruckner’s First Symphony, not written until the composer was 42, offers glimpses of a radical, almost youthful, modernism. Bold orchestral figures are intercut with mysterious harmonically questing passages indebted to the sensuous music of his idol.

Russell Davies has an extraordinary grasp of Bruckner’s mammoth structures; since 2002, he has been chief conductor at the Bruckner Orchester Linz, a position he will leave in 2017. With the Konzerthausorchester, he built monolithic blocks of sound with bold and patient phrasing. He also harnessed the ensemble’s enthusiasm into a taut and energetic performance that exploded with fearsome power at Bruckner’s awesome climaxes. This was an exhilarating performance, borne not only from Russell Davies’ long-standing relationship with the composer’s music, but from the Konzerthausorchester’s evident passion for the work.