top of page

Review: Philip Glass 80th birthday at the RLPO ****

It’s a truth universally acknowledged that an orchestra in possession of a new contemporary classical work must be in want of an audience. As Jane Austen might well have said. Probably.

Of course, a new contemporary classical work in Austen’s day might have been a Beethoven symphony or Haydn’s Creation.

Here, the RLPO was in possession of American composer Philip Glass’ latest creation, his 11th symphony, receiving its UK premiere in his 80th year and before a modest but enthusiastic audience at the Philharmonic Hall.

Glass was not in attendance, but I suspect he would have been rightly pleased with the Phil’s performance of what is a rhythmically strenuous piece, and the rousing reception it received.

He describes himself as a composer of music with repetitive structures.

And repetition is certainly at the heart of the relentless, driving structure of the symphony’s three movements, opening with a snappy piano (later mirrored by the cellos) which is joined by percussion punctuation before a more free-form, swirling on the violins, as if they are doing warm up scales, and two-tone woodwind.

Glass has created a work with intense musical colour and texture, and Vasily Petrenko drove the orchestra resolutely to each thematic crescendo which marked a change of dynamics and rhythm, as a new musical front opened.

Although the composer has abandoned ‘allegro’, ‘andante’, ‘scherzo’ descriptions in favour of a utilitarian movement I, II and III titles, the second had more than a passing nod to an andante structure, with a yearning pulse of strings and harps, and a winding melodic flute. Even a hint of McCartney-esque piano I might venture.

The final movement opened with a rat-tat-tat military tattoo, easing in to a brilliant off-kilter percussion groove, attacked with alacrity by a beefed up RLPO percussion section.

As a listener, the sheer relentlessness of the work had exhausted me, if not the Phil, as the finish line came in to sight; a rolling rhythm which powered its way with musical muscle to a shattering conclusion.

The new symphony was paired with Dvorak’s American Suite, given a jaunty and spirited performance by the orchestra, and Scriabin’s equally strenuous Second Symphony, which was stirring and weighty, with a pretty fluttering birdsong flute passage from Cormac Henry, and a luminosity to its maestro finale.

The orchestra deserved a nice sit down with a cup of tea after that. Or perhaps something stronger?

bottom of page