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American Composers Orchestra
Tuesday, January 31
Better than: A date with Justin Bieber for a 13-year-old girl.
Last night at Carnegie Hall, the American Composers Orchestra (“the only orchestra in the world” dedicated to music by American composers) celebrated Philip Glass’s 75th birthday with a program that began with the New York premiere of Estonian-born composer Arvo Pärt’s alternately sparse and bombastic Lamentate and ended with the U.S. premiere of Glass’s Symphony No. 9. It was a magical evening, the kind of night where audience member Meryl Streep is not recognized as the star of the The Iron Lady (or even for being Meryl Streep) but rather just as that actress in the Glass-scored film The Hours, there to celebrate her friend’s big night.
Even when someone fell unconscious during the performance—an incident made all the more stunning by Carnegie Hall’s legendary acoustics and the sparse nature of Part’s composition at that moment—the band played on without missing a beat.
Pärt’s Lamentate was the perfect showpiece for the hall’s acoustics. Before it started, first violin Eva Gruesser took the stage, followed by piano soloist Maki Namekawa (wearing a stunning fluorescent pink cape and boots that looked like they’d be awfully hard to play a piano in) and conductor Dennis Russell Davies. Davies, Glass told us, has commissioned eight of his nine symphonies, and having watched him conduct the world premiere of Symphony No. 8 at BAM years ago with gusto, I was sad to realize he’d be largely hidden from view behind Namekawa’s front-and-center grand piano.
Without being able to see Davies’s baton, it was hard to know when Lamentate actually began. The initial rumbling of the bass drum was so subtle—indeed, it was more of a feeling than even a sound initially—it could have been mistaken for an underfoot subway. But slowly and forcefully, the piece came to life, the gentle sounds creating a similar sensation to traveling from sleep to consciousness with the help of dawning light of dawn rather than the glaring of an alarm clock.
But the alarm clock came in the form of Namekawa’s playing, which provided a dramatic counter-point to the rest of the orchestra, her hands doing a delicate choreography above the keys during the (long) periods of time when she wasn’t striking them dramatically. There is a crescendo in Lamentate which is strangely reminiscent of (and just as aggressive as) the on in the Beattles’s The Fool on the Hill.
In the program notes, Pärt describes the piece being “marked by two diametrically opposed moods: I would characterize these two poles as being ‘brutal-overwhelming’ and ‘intimate fragile.’ ” This is pretty accurate, and the piece worked most for me in the moments of fragility, reminiscent of the first piece of Pärt’s I ever heard, Tabula Rasa.
When Pärt’s music was so sparse that it made you focus on the silences as much as the sounds (the way a Giacometti sculpture makes you focus on the absence of space as much as the object itself), it truly accented what a fine hall Carnegie is, and how it really amplifies the silence. Unfortunately, the amount of silence was also accented by every cough-drop wrapper being opened and person moving in their seat, the woman who fell asleep and started snoring behind me, and, most dramatically of all, the personwho collapsed on an aisle seat on the left side of the house.
“Doctor!” someone called over the quiet music as a flurry of activity surrounded someone who appeared to slump from their seat onto the floor. It was a dramatic uptick of events for people who were bored (there were quite a few, judging from conversations during intermission); amazingly, Davies did not miss a beat conducting, despite the rush of activity just a few rows from the stage. (At intermission I found out that a man had merely fainted and was OK; however, upping the ante, he fainted on top of a pregnant woman, and people initially thought there was something happening to her. To be born or die in Carnegie Hall with a live score by Arvo Pärt would have been pretty dramatic; fortunately, neither happened.)
After the intermission the grand piano was rolled away so that the audience could see Davies, who is always fun to watch passionately conducting in his signature black—at the height of his prowess. The first movement started low and ominously, like the quiet growl of a wild animal as it gazes at gathering clouds that are warning of the violent storm to come. Glass’s work filled the space of the hall immediately and didn’t let go for the next 45 minutes. It bore the Glass’s signature use of repetition many times (but at a few moments so subtly you could barely tell) and it was anything but minimalist, a classification Glass was never big on in the first place and which doesn’t apply to his work on the concert stage at all.
I found the beginning of the second movement the most beautiful. The first movement ended with a cowboy-like percussion rhythm that almost brought Glass into the realm of Hopalong Cassidy before petering out to silence. But the second movement was so light and violin-centric, it seemed almost like it could have been from a film score composed by John Barry and not Glass. It evoked flight, and sadness, in a very different way than Glass’s scores ever do while accompanying images of both in any film he’s scored. It was still Glass, but was such an evolution from Music in 12 Parts and Koyaanisqatsi that, for a minute or two, it sounded like a complete departure; eventually, and beautifully, it blended into a more recognizable Glass sound. (After the performance that I read in the program that “Glass does admit reworking a theme used in a film called Rebirth, which will be played in an exhibit at the Ground Zero Museum. It appears in the beginning of the second movement.” Perhaps that’s why the second movement sounded especially sweet and airy at first.)
Glass was sitting almost directly over our seats, in the center box on the first tier. When I glanced up during the first two movements, all I could see were his forehead and eyes; it was impossible to tell what his facial expression was. But during the third movement, he leaned forward over the rail and I could see his face resting in his hand. Most of the time, while Davies looked like he was working up a sweat on stage, Glass appeared impassive, his face not giving away much. At times, he’d blink or almost nod in time with the music when it rose especially dramatically. But what a beautiful thing it was to watch the face of this American composer, watching his latest symphony being heard by an American audience for the first time.
When he took a bow onstage at the end, he didn’t look like a 75-year-old accomplished composer, but like a young man with an open heart who was just taking it all in as if it were the first time he’d received such accolades.
Critical bias: I love Philip Glass as an artist, and feel privileged to have spent time talking to him to profile him and to have watched him watch a premiere of his work on his birthday. Listening to Glass’s new works makes me feel grateful to be alive while an artist who so fascinates me so is living and working. Still, one of the things I love about Glass is that I don’t love all of his work. He is one of those people that evolves and goes beyond what I (or any fan, I imagine) would always love. He keeps reaching and growing in ways that can’t be to everyone’s taste all the time. But he did not disappoint me last night.
Overheard: “I mean, the dry-cleaning bill for my jeans alone…”
Random notebook dump: My date for the evening was Maurice Peress, the author of Dvorak to Duke Ellington and a conductor who is very familiar with Carnegie Hall. Peress actually conducted the ACO there once, but his first interaction with the famed house was as an assistant conductor of the New York Philharmonic under Leonard Bernstein in 1961. It was amazing to hear Peress’s stories of what life was like in Carnegie Hall a half-century ago, when everyone on stage was a man and almost all of them were white. The latter was still true last night, Peress noted sadly. (I discussed this point with Glass; the conversation will be part of a blog post on Glass’s thoughts on African-American music later this month.)
Arvo Pärt: Lamentate (NY Premiere)
Philip Glass: Symphony No. 9
Every day this month,in conjunction with our Feb. 1 cover story “Philip Glass, An East Village Voice,” Sound of the City will post excepts of interviews with Glass and his collaborators, as well as reviews of several concerts celebrating his 75th birthday.