It takes courage, or perhaps pure foolhardiness, for a dilettante to review Philip Glass, his Avant-Garde Establishment Gray Eminence, especially in the realm of the classical. And most especially in the context of mature chamber music played on period instruments (and synthesizer) by virtuoso musicians. But fools rush in.
The occasion: the New York premiere of Glass’s Violin Concerto No. 2: The American Four Seasons, part of Glass’s The Seasons Project, played by the Venice Baroque Orchestra under the direction of celebrated violinist/concertmaster Robert McDuffie. (The composition premiered last year in Toronto, McDuffie’s hometown.)
The program: The American Four Seasons was preceded by its titular inspiration, Antonio Vivaldi’s Le quattro stagioni, featuring Luca De Marchi, who also played synthesizer in the Glass concerto, on harpsichord. This classical favorite is difficult not to like, given its familiarity and motival repetition. McDuffie’s emotive, standing delivery creates novelty (for example, the light strings all stand, creating a “what’s different about this orchestra’s visual presentation?” moment of mental reconfiguration for the audience). But it seems a tad gimmicky, and McDuffie’s bodily gesticulations at times border on the cartoonish, risking distraction. The rationale for standing may be historical, or physical, given that the sitting position on violin and viola is cramped, and that soloists typically stand, but the visual effect of a score of musicians standing around can be (pardon the expression) disconcerting. One can always close one’s eyes, though.
The audience loved everything, but to be honest the Vivaldi was emotionally flat and even slightly scratchy. It’s a piece that has much vivace, and, precisely because of its familiarity, must not be sawn through. Despite McDuffie’s gymnastic alacrity, and the orchestra’s clear enthusiasm, the interpretation seemed cursory. Perhaps McDuffie, who obviously believes in the power of physical presence, can apply that principle to the score, exaggerating, just a bit, the fortes and pianos for greater expressive depth.
Although The American Four Seasons contains four movements, it was played straight through with no perceptible pauses between them, requiring another kind of mental adjustment, and making its musicological logic and transitions difficult to follow. Add to this the ubiquity of Glass’s music and its derivatives in mainstream cinema and television, and the very odd feeling emerged that one was listening to the soundtrack of some very slick commercial program. One half-expected a narrator to break in upon the subject of the rapture of the deep, or actors to resume their action in a galactic sweep. Is it possible that Glass’s aural signatures—including the throbbing trance harmonium and minimal continuo—have become liabilities, creative clichés?
Not that the electronic element was particularly present. One assumes that the synthesizer was intentionally muted, creating a subtle undercurrent. This was, after all, a violin concerto. Still, the incorporation of a violin/synthesizer duet, and a violin/synthesizer alternating dialog, would have made The American Four Seasons much stronger and more interesting; in the sense that Glass had the opportunity to put the Carnegie Hall audience in front of something a lot more daring and innovative, a critic could uncharitably describe the work as sedative and underwhelming, if aesthetically polished and sonically smooth. One recalls the experimental vigor of Glass’s late peer Iannis Xenakis in pieces like Persepolis. Forty years later, we might have expected some progress.
The greatest strength of The American Four Seasons was its complex texturing. Glass deserves praise for taking the orchestra into new territory, using coincidental layering (think Merce Cunningham and John Cage) rather than harmonies to create a dense, composite sound. There is a “don’t try this at home” moment well into Concerto when the entire ensemble is “in the zone” and the listener, encountering an intense, inscrutable wall of sound, is transported to a musical nirvana, thrown back into the seat by overwhelming G-forces. The symphonic Beethoven would be proud.
For those expecting Modern, The American Four Seasons was a remarkable departure, suggesting that Glass is reaching in his maturity, experimenting in the realm of the traditional. Although recognizable pattern elements were embedded in the composition, it didn’t have much DNA in common with the resplendent operas Kepler and Einstein on the Beach, or historical Glass innovations like Music in Twelve Parts. Maybe cinematic commissions like Koyaanisqatsi have de-originalized and even commoditized Glass. There may be something to be said, as Iggy Pop recently asserted, for “withholding supply.” Further, for those paying attention, New York continues to be a cornucopia of exquisite experimental music, such as that of Aaron Siegel, whose Kitty Hawk (Brother’s Tears) was recently performed at Proteus Gowanus, and sound artists Phill Niblock (Stosspeng) and Bruce Tovsky. The new avant-gardists may have Père Glass to thank, but there are many games in town today, if only we could hear, and hear of, them.
Taken on its own merits, The American Four Seasons was an entirely satisfying piece of classical orchestral music, if difficult to place. Not 20th-century Modern: neither Tchaikovsky nor Satie nor Webern; nor was it avant-garde in the electronic, historic sense, synthesizer notwithstanding. In the end, it felt like nothing more than a virtuoso piece of classical music performed by virtuosos. And that earned Glass, appearing onstage at last, an appreciative standing ovation.