Glass At 80: Bruckner Orchester Linz
UNC’s Memorial Hall, Chapel Hill
Wednesday, February 1, 2017

New Philip Glass pieces generally fall into two categories: the really good and the really bad. His style is so distinctive, his palette of ideas so stable, that the difference between the two comes down to small decisions of pacing and inflection. His piles of repetitive arpeggios either go somewhere or they don’t, and it’s sometimes hard to pinpoint exactly why they work in one place but fall flat in another.

Thankfully, his eleventh symphony, which received its second ever performance last night by the Bruckner Orchester Linz under the direction of longtime Glass compatriot Dennis Russel Davies, is a good Philip Glass piece. Over the course of three long movements, Glass crafts satisfying arcs by using some of his usual elements in unexpected ways. The first movement is a churning, lopsided 5/4 groove with wave after wave of minor-key arpeggios in the strings.

From my vantage point, I could see the bass section having a grand time shredding through all those notes. Throughout the movement, Glass passes interesting, drawn-out bass lines amongst the lower instruments that sometimes seem to take the place of the absent melodies. Near the end, the winds and brass find the kernel of an idea to build a head of steam around and eventually explode into a full-throated fanfare. It feels like vintage Glass, with a bit of a twist.

The second movement starts with Glass in a more contemplative mood with transparent strings providing a backing drone for ascending and descending lines that crisscross in the winds. After a while, we suddenly shift back into a faster tempo with a solid 3/4 beat and driving percussion. Once again, the violins and flutes start plowing through arpeggios; however, instead of letting them layer into a maelstrom as in the first movement, Glass puts them in unison, giving them an almost lyrical quality. The rest of the movement is all about the tension between those two ideas, and Glass carves out shapes that are mostly satisfying. This is the movement that feels most indebted to the language of film music, and at times, the chord progressions sounded like the soundtrack to a Tim Burton film (Danny Elfman, unsurprisingly, draws a lot on Glass).

The third movement is one big dance, kicked off by an extended drum-corps percussion section, which sets the tone for everything that follows. While nothing in particular stuck out to me for the bulk of it, it was an exciting ride, even though the coda felt grafted on from a completely different piece. It’s an impressive new symphony, one that stands alongside Glass’s best works in recent years. Davies had the orchestra sounding smooth and well balanced. Playing this much Glass in one night is no easy feat, and they approached everything with ease and precision.

The first half of the show featured two earlier works by Glass: Days and Nights in Rocinha and his first violin concerto. The former is essentially his take on Ravel’s Bolero. Like Bolero, it takes a single idea and repeats it over and over and over, with the orchestration and harmonies gradually evolving. The poor cellos get the short end of the stick here, playing essentially the same fast figure for its entire twenty-minute duration. My favorite moments in this light work involved an impossible-to-identify gong and a wooly bass clarinet line.

I have never liked Glass’s first violin concerto, and Robert McDuffie’s performance did little to change my mind. It’s an incredibly difficult work to make sound good, with little material beyond flurries of arpeggios and occasional, disjointed lines that might almost resemble a melody if you squint. McDuffie’s seemed to attack his instrument with a tone that was lacerating and harsh, even at the most lyrical moments, and he often seemed to be a little off from the orchestra. Only at the very end, when Glass adds an actual melody, did everything finally mesh. I wasn’t impressed, but I may have been the only one—it got a rousing ovation from the rest of the crowd.