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21.1.05

Philip Glass World Premiere and Matthias Goerne

I am jumping from World Premiere to World Premiere. Last Sunday at the National Gallery of Art (review forthcoming) and now, at the Kennedy Center, with Philip Glass's 7th Symphony. The preconcert speach of Leonard Slatkin's pointed out similarities in the presented composers (next to Glass there was Gustav Mahler) that, really, don't exist. Slatkin's post-ex-facto rationalisation for the program was that, somehow, Mahler had premonitions of Schoenberg and rejected him - and that Glass jumped out of a musical world that was dominated, still, with the legacy of Schoenberg. It's silly, of course, but it made a few people laugh.

The 7th symphony of Philip Glass - an NSO commission - starts in somber and soft tones, with a rattle and brass-hums providing a first, tame rhythmic pulse. Shimmering strings and vibraphone (?) descend repeated scales and slowly, comfortably, everything gets under way. All the Glass elements are there: short, repeated arpeggios and little runs, the forward driving repeated notes (increasingly threatening) that were so prominently featured in the Fog of War soundtrack - into which the wailing short voices of other instruments fall. It is as easy on the ears as the second and third symphonies of his are... and equally far removed from the all-out minimalism (think Einstein on the Beach, Koyaanisqatsi) as them. Instead of using his signature phrases to make them the work, he uses them as building blocks in a far more varied tapestry of sound. Crackles and outbursts puncture the run up to the end of "The Corn," the first movement, before it falls into a calm, complacent state. In variety, the third symphony in particular has a little more to offer for a first movement - but the sense of rise and fall (less so of 'Mother Earth' and our duties to her and her corn, feeding us) was easily experienced and enjoyed.

The second movement opens with timpani and rattles, followed by almost electronic sounding little looped musical figures that litter all of Glass's compositions. It also features a chorus (the Master Chorale of Washington performed) - text and translations not necessary - in what sounds like Glass reinventing the Carmina Burana. The whole work is called "A Toltec Symphony" and refers (through its titled movements) to the Wirrarika - a Mexican people that descended from the Toltec cultures of the Post-Classic Mayans and their sacred trinity: corn, a sacred root (Hikuri), and a blue deer. (I couldn't make that stuff up, even if I wanted to!)

For all the different textures in the second movement with the choir, it remained monochromatic, firmly on the ground and - with or despite its abrupt stop - rather weak and derivative. The glorious rising - stop - and falling - stop - of "The Blue Deer," the third movement, was very enjoyable - stop - in its divided legato passages and harmonies that evoked composers other than Glass himself. Soft and and happily humming along, it was stronger on "pleasing" than "novel" - but of course, almost every Glass composition is a textbook example of (successful) self-plagiarism. While that does work for many pieces (and certainly for Glass as a composer... though he admitted in the talk afterwards that it is much harder to lose 'your own voice' again than is finding it in the first place), I would have wished for much more from movements 2 and 3 especially. There were simply no surprises around any of the corners... just good old acquaintances. The musical vernacular of Glass is not very deep - he would, I am pretty sure, be the first one to admit. Still, it would be silly to quip that once you've heard one of his works, you've heard them all. I find Vivaldi - also much maligned along these lines - more tiresome and 'same-ish' than Glass. The question must be asked, however, at which point the possibilities for a meaningful musical statement have been exhausted when the tools with which Glass creates his works don't change. The "Fog-of-War..." err... "Toltec" Symphony is at the cusp between wonderful and empty. This time I still loved it - Symphony No. 8 will have to go somewhere else, though, if I am not to loathe it.

The organ-backed finale, by the way, was positively rousing. Applause was civil, rather than enthusiastic - despite some hollers and a solid block of standing ovations - and lasted long enough to convey that the work had much pleased the audience from the youngster in the muscle shirt to the elderly lady in her tweed suite and purple-tinted white hair.

If that hadn't been draw enough, the second half of the program featured none less than Matthias Goerne, one of the foremost baritones in Lieder of our time. (A review of his latest Schumann disc is also forthcoming.) He sang songs from Mahler's Des Knaben Wunderhorn - and gave the answer to how the two composers, Glass and Mahler, are really connected; namely that they both could shamelessly quote their own work - verbatim - and still provide masterpieces.

The NSO that played the Glass with enthusiasm also gave a good, agile Mahler performance. Herr Goerne, whose low notes in "Der Schildwache Nachtlied" and some of the final songs got lost behind the Orchestra, made much of the varied nature and tempi in the songs. His tone had the usual, remarkable, and burnished quality his admirers have come to expect of him. His voice, round and velvety, is all-around pleasant sounding... though a tone that is more open and clear - natural? - would be equally welcome by my ears, especially in Mahler. The sublime "Urlicht" may be even more pressing and immediate with a mezzo soprano going about it (as in Symphony No. 2) - but Goerne, the NSO, and Nurith Bar-Josef in the solo violin part did their best to move all but the most hardened hearts in the two-thirds full Orchestra Hall. (Tickets are, by special promotion, available for $25 for orchestra seating - if I am not mistaken.) "Lied des Verfolgten im Turm" came through as a boisterous assault on the prisoner's ill fate - less the soaring defiance that marks the poem and popular German song "Our Thoughts are Free" that I learned as a kid and would hum when disagreeing with parental decisions.

The whole night had spelled magnificence - and the audience, safe from all the inauguration hoopla outside, responded accordingly. With one more song from the cycle as an encore, the night ended as one of the more memorable evenings with the NSO - and two more chances to experience it: today (Friday) and tomorrow (Saturday) at 8:00 pm. A preview of the symphony was given by Tim Page in the Post (Jan. 16th) - and Cecelia Porter reported for the Post today.

For a symphonic Glass experience, meanwhile, try Symphony #3 or #2 (with the concerto for Saxophone Quartet) on the Nonesuch label with Dennis Russel Davies - or, almost as well played and combined on one inexpensive Naxos disc, Marin Alsop.

Available at Amazon
Philip Glass, Symphony No. 3
Available at Amazon
Philip Glass, Symphony No. 2
Available at Amazon
Philip Glass, Symphonies No. 2 and 3

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