I saw an artistic idol of mine for the first time Friday night: contemporary classical composer Philip Glass. There he was walking around the auditorium of the Opera House at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, looking a little grayer than most recent pictures of him, and then later on stage after the concert with conductor Dennis Russell Davies and the Orchestra Bruckner Linz.
But the problem with idols is that you expect a lot from them, so the bar is higher and harder to match at times. Thus was the case with the first half of the evening’s program for me: the world premiere of Glass’ Symphony No. 8. The composer’s music has been distinguished over the years by prolonged repetition of distinctive arpeggios and other motifs followed by the successive change and modulation of those elements over time. This latest work was all about change, however. There was little if any time for each melody or chord to stay fixed in your mind. It was constant motion, but not motion to any satisfying conclusion. Instead of following the typical fast-slow-fast model of three-movement symphonies, the third movement is so haltingly slow that I felt like I just wanted it to be over before long. At a pause in the middle of the piece, one congested audience member could be heard to wheeze a bit and utter “Oh vey!” The whole work seemed so watered down and formless, which only compounded its forgettable nature.
But the second half proved worth the price of admission. It was Glass’ earlier symphony – No. 6 – for orchestra and soprano. Lauren Flanigan, who premiered the piece in 2002, was back to perform the vocal duties for the text by Allen Ginsberg that also gives the work its subtitle: “Plutonian Ode,” a poem that mixes scenes from ancient mythology with the modern monstrosities of nuclear proliferation and war mongering (“Is there a new thing under the Sun?” it asks.)
The genesis of the piece, which was originally going to be for piano alone, began while Ginsberg was alive. But Glass resurrected it for orchestra and soprano (instead of Ginsberg’s own voice) a few years after the poet’s death in 1997. Flanigan was really reveling in the piece, looking truly passionate as much about the words she sang as the music the players were creating behind her. On stage she motioned, looked surprised and elated, signaled with her hands to the audience and made other impassioned faces throughout. It could’ve been a bit distracting if I hadn’t been looking down at the program to follow along with Ginsberg’s text for much of the time or if she hadn’t seemed so sincere about it all.
The highlight was the third movement, which begins in a mode so familiar to Glass fans. If I were to compare the feeling of tension and sublimity to an older classical piece, it would have to be the very opening of Sibelius’ Violin Concerto in D minor, before the soloist comes in. Out of the six sections of the evening’s music, this was the one I enjoyed the most, that reminded me most of why I enjoy listening to Glass. The momentum, the rise and fall like waves of the orchestra’s volume, the pressure and release, all punctuated by the clearest and most accessible of the lines in the soprano. Now that’s a way to end a program. And thus by that point Glass and the performers had truly earned their standing ovation.