“The years catch up with you, but my agenda remains the same,” Philip Glass said, five years ago. This past evening at Carnegie Hall, to celebrate Glass’ eightieth birthday, Dennis Russell Davies led the Bruckner Orchestra Linz through two New York premieres of Glass works as well as the world premiere of his Symphony No. 11. By and large, the concert was as much of a present to what appeared to be a sold-out audience as it was to the composer.
It was a shock to discover that Glass’ 1997 Days and Nights in Rocinha – an equally kinetic and hypnotic tone poem of sorts – had never been performed here. It’s sort of the Ravel Bolero as the bastard child of Julia Wolfe and Angelo Badalamenti might have written it. The orchestra gave it a meticulously dynamic performance. Davies, a longtime Glass champion, looked nervous as its first unexpected, muted burst of low brass appeared, but by the end the music had reached his hips and he was swaying along triumphantly. Meanwhile, Glass sat in the front row of his balcony box, leaning on his elbow, chin in hand, inscrutable. The piece made a good choice of opener: the few moments of percussive sprinkling, wryly humorous stops-and-starts and hints of Egberto Gismonti tropical elegance foreshadowed a good proportion of the music to come.
Angelique Kidjo sang the New York premiere of a Yoruban creation triptych that she’d written with Glass. He’d done his homework, a rigorous analysis of the language’s phonetics and syllables so as to enable a smooth correspondence between lyrics and music. The first part was something akin to Jeff Lynne gone latin. The second, with its steady volleys of arpeggios over uneasy chromatics, was a striking and familiarly haunting look back to Glass’ iconic and perhaps career-defining Dracula soundtrack. The third was the closest to an orchestrated African folk song. Kidjo matched raw emotion to blues-inflected sophistication, notwithstanding some sonic issues early on – she was amplified, the orchestra wasn’t.
The show concluded with the new symphony, which could be viewed as a career retrospsective. It had every one of Glass’ signature tropes: dry humor matched by a similar flair for the unexpected; artfully subtle rhythmic reshaping; those broken major triads that the composer loves as much as wary chromatic vamps and moodily shifting accidentals; and unabashedly resonant beauty. Much of it was like one of his string quartets fleshed out with dense washes of extra strings.
Until the third movement, there weren’t many individual voices flickering through the enigmatic cycles of notes, but when they appeared, those motives – a droll oboe, a ghost of a tuba, a woodsy clarinet – were perfectly precise. The ensemble negotiated the second movement’s sudden but very cleverly disguised change of beats with similar aplomb. The third began with a rather vaudevillian percussion intro and for awhile was a real scherzo, until the orchestra turned a corner abruptly and…that’s where Glass’ joke became too good to give away. Glass’ music is so easy to get lost in that there are some things that are hard to see coming despite what can be innumerable deadpan hints of it.
What you should really do is not spoil the ending for yourself: just go see it the next time it’s performed here. Which it will be, probably sooner than later. Lucky concertgoers in Chapel Hill, North Carolina can see the orchestra play the first and last pieces plus Glass’ Violin Concerto No. 1 with soloist Robert McDuffie tomorrow, Feb 1 at 7:30 PM at UNC Memorial Hall at 114 E. Cameron Ave; $30 tix are available.