Sunday, April 1, 2012

An evening with Philip Glass and the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra

   On Friday night, Aileen and I attended a special performance of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra at Music Hall entitled Life Reflected. The performance was conducted by Dennis Russell Davies and contained the premier of a new work, Cello Concerto Number 2, Naqoyqatsi, by Philip Glass,  alongside Symphony Number 6 in A Major by Anton Bruckner.

   An hour prior to their weekend concerts, the CSO hosts Classical Conversations, during which they provide a preview of, and discussion about, the works to be performed. We arrived in time for this program and were able to hear William White, the assistant conductor of the CSO, and Philip Glass discuss the evening's program. It was fascinating to hear Glass discuss his own compositions and career, as he is one of my favorite modern composers. His concerto is based upon the score that he wrote in 2001 for a film entitled Naqoyqatsi (a Hopi word meaning 'war as a way of life'). The film is the third in a trilogy that deals with the state of our modern world.

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Philip Glass

   First on the program was Glass's concerto. It featured Matt Haimovitz, a notable cello soloist and virtuoso, known for his nontraditional  performance venues and technique. The work was divided into five movements, with additional short sections before and after the third movement. The First movement, "Naqoyqatsi," echoed much of the beginning of the film score. The main difference is that it was condensed and that the chanting of the word 'naqoyqatsi' had been replaced by instruments, which I actually preferred. A very subtle and slow movement, it was performed mainly on the lower end range of the orchestra. The second movement, and my favorite of the evening, "Massman," began and ended with lyrical sections that truly showcased the soloist while the middle showed more chaos and agitation utilizing the entire orchestra. Between the second and third movements was "New World," a short, yet haunting, solo for cello. The next movement, "Intensive Time," contained very complex rhythmic patterns throughout the orchestral parts, which purposefully overwhelmed the solo cellist at times, who was all but replaced by a solo trumpet (a soprano vocalist in the film version). "Old World," the second short section, featured the solo cellist again, but with the addition of a few short harp melodies interspersed throughout. The fourth movement, my second favorite, "Point Blank," was the climax of the entire concerto. The soloist was now almost completely overwhelmed by the other players as the melodies swirled and competed in a war-like helplessness. The concerto ended with "Epilogue," as the solo cello, at times softly accompanied by the orchestra, quietly ended the piece on an optimistic major chord. The audience must have truly enjoyed the concerto as much as I did, because they stood applauding for a full five minutes when the piece ended.

Anton Bruckner
   The second half of the program, Bruckner's symphony, was not the focus of the evening for most in the audience. However, you could not tell that by sound of things. The piece began with a stirring and memorable melody quickly driven from the quiet high end of the violins into the deep booming brass and bass ends. Immediately it was clear that this work was to be given the same attention by the orchestra as the previous piece. This symphony, while not one of Bruckner's more widely performed works, is a true showcase of Bruckner's signature "Bruckner Rhythm." This is a rhythmic pattern that he used quite often throughout his compositional career featuring a beat divided in a duple manner (two beats) immediately followed by a beat divided in a triple manner (three beats).

   The two differing styles of composition were very clear: whereas Glass's concerto was mostly haunting, delicate, and lyrical, Bruckner's symphony was methodical, with intricate juxtapositions of complicated rhythmic beats, and at times bombastic and heavy. Regardless, both pieces were performed beautifully by the CSO, and Dennis Russel Davies deserves a great deal of praise for his leadership and artistic vision and interpretation. The evening's program was wonderful, but one thing about it did leave me less than pleased: the venue was only about half full. In this age of television, popular music, and instant gratification, the greater part of the general public could not be troubled to attend the world premier of a concerto by arguably one of today's most important living composers. I count myself fortunate to have been able to experience this amazing event.

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