Philip Glass at 80: Fa­mously un­fath­omable

The in­flu­en­tial Amer­i­can com­poser re­mains a mav­er­ick. The man who has con­ducted his 11 sym­phonies talks about why.

The Washington Post Sunday - - CLASSICAL MUSIC - BY ANNE MIDGETTE anne.midgette@wash­post.com

Philip Glass, the most fa­mous and among the most-per­formed of liv­ing com­posers, turned 80 in Jan­uary, and the year is be­ing feted with “Glass@80” cel­e­bra­tions all over the world. And yet, Glass re­mains a mav­er­ick; much of his mu­sic re­mains lit­tle­known, and many se­ri­ous mu­sic lovers are con­vinced they don’t like it. And few of those birthday cel­e­bra­tions are at the ma­jor cul­tural in­sti­tu­tions in the coun­try of his birth. The Kennedy Cen­ter? The Na­tional Sym­phony Or­ches­tra? The Bos­ton Sym­phony Or­ches­tra or the New York Phil­har­monic? Look again.

“There’s a lot of peo­ple that think they don’t like that,” says the con­duc­tor Den­nis Rus­sell Davies, “without know­ing what ‘that’ is.”

Davies, 72, knows well what “that” is. He is the con­duc­tor who knows Glass’s work bet­ter than any­one. In­deed, he is in no small part re­spon­si­ble for Glass’s evolution, over the sec­ond half of his ca­reer, as a com­poser of sym­phonic mu­sic and op­eras. He con­ducted the world pre­miere of Glass’s first sym­phony in 1992, when the com­poser was al­ready in his 50s, and com­mis­sioned and pre­miered many of the next ones, up to and in­clud­ing the 11th, which had its pre­miere at Carnegie Hall on Jan. 31, the day of Glass’s birth.

And like Glass, Davies — who is com­ing to Wash­ing­ton Sun­day with his wife for a duo pi­ano recital at the Phillips Col­lec­tion un­der the “Glass@80” rubric — is per­haps not well un­der­stood by U.S. au­di­ences. He’s thought of as a cham­ber mu­sic con­duc­tor, and a new-mu­sic guy — not least be­cause he founded the Amer­i­can Com­posers Or­ches­tra in the 1970s. Yet he has also done out­stand­ing work with the tra­di­tional canon.

Take his recorded sym­phonic cy­cles. “I’ve now recorded all of the Haydns,” he says, “all of the Bruck­n­ers, in ev­ery ver­sion — we’re the only or­ches­tra and I’m the only con­duc­tor that’s ever done that — Honeg­ger, Schu­bert, and Philip Glass.” He adds, with a smile, “I prob­a­bly have a fairly unique record­ing back­ground.”

A rep for rep­e­ti­tion

How can some­one as fa­mous and pro­lific as Glass be so mis­un­der­stood? It’s not just a ques­tion of whether you like the mu­sic, or think you like it; it’s a ques­tion of know­ing that it ex­ists. Although Glass has writ­ten 11 sym­phonies, Davies says that when a ma­jor Amer­i­can or­ches­tra was re­cently ap­proached about per­form­ing Glass, the re­sponse was, “But he doesn’t write sym­phonies.”

There’s no ques­tion that Glass’s sym­phonic mu­sic has un­der­gone a con­sid­er­able evolution since the first, “Low” Sym­phony, based on the David Bowie al­bum of the same name. “When Philip started writing or­ches­tral mu­sic, he wasn’t as skilled as he is now by a long shot,” Davies ob­serves. “He had the sound, but prac­ti­cal things, like how to help in­stru­men­tal­ists get through long stretches of do­ing sim­i­lar things,” took longer to emerge. But, he says, “Start­ing with the 2nd sym­phony, it’s a unique sound; he has his lan­guage.”

“There’s a nice say­ing, sim­i­lar to what used to be said about Mozart: It’s too easy for the am­a­teur and too dif­fi­cult for the pro­fes­sional,” Davies adds. “With Philip, [it’s] be­ing able to play in tune ac­cu­rately [and] be ex­pres­sive with a min­i­mum of vir­tu­osic in­ten­tion.”

The rap on Glass, par­tic­u­larly from those who don’t know his mu­sic well, is that it sim­ply re­peats over and over, and verges on the banal — and is very hard to play. One mu­si­cian has re­cently ex­pressed how even the rep­e­ti­tions of the ear­lier work, ap­proached with se­ri­ous­ness, can be­come rev­e­la­tory. In her com­pelling, bit­ing, and of­ten painful mem­oir “The Skin Above My Knee,” pub­lished this month, the oboist Mar­cia But­ler writes about her ex­pe­ri­ence play­ing the opera “White Raven” in 1991.

It “makes you start to think about how the whole world is one enor­mous re­peat,” she writes. “And you be­gin to de­velop a fas­ci­na­tion with frac­tals and per­fect pro­por­tions and cer­tain colors like red and the golden mean and even the univer­sal el­e­ments of the so­lar sys­tem that seem to hold the whole earth up and si­mul­ta­ne­ously keep it spin­ning. And re­peat­ing feels fun­da­men­tal and nat­u­ral and a God-given right.”

In a mem­oir that pulls no punches when it comes to un­flat­ter­ing por­traits of mu­si­cal fig­ures, But­ler re­serves high praise for Davies, although she does not name him.

“This mae­stro is God’s gift to mu­si­cians,” she writes. “He uses his body parts to guide you and the world through this mu­sic . . . . His fin­gers tell you one thing, and later his el­bows tell you some­thing else. And when he uses his whole arm, it shows you some­thing com­pletely dif­fer­ent. And he can change it up at will. Some­how, you know just what he wants.” She adds, “And when peo­ple do mess up their re­peats, he just smiles. You want to play per­fectly for him, be­cause he is such a gen­tle­man about the mis­takes.”

So why isn’t Davies bet­ter known? In part be­cause he left for Europe in the 1980s. “Pi­geon­hol­ing was an Amer­i­can sport,” he says, “and I wasn’t in­ter­ested.” And in part, per­haps, be­cause he’s been more in­ter­ested in fo­cus­ing on de­vel­op­ing his own or­ches­tras than in play­ing the guest-con­duc­tor game of go­ing around to U.S. or­ches­tras lead­ing the tra­di­tional reper­tory.

And, work con­di­tions in Europe have had a sig­nif­i­cant in­flu­ence on the mu­sic he’s com­mis­sioned from Glass. Take Sym­phony No. 11. “We didn’t put lim­its on the in­stru­men­ta­tion or length of the piece,” Davies says, “all those things Amer­i­can com­posers [for Amer­i­can or­ches­tras] are forced to deal with. Europe has some is­sues, but I still live on Trea­sure Is­land over there . . . . We have enough re­hearsals to deal with the pro­gram we’re do­ing. It’s a shoe box [in the United States]: a cer­tain num­ber of re­hearsals, and then the con­cert. It’s un­der­stand­able, ABOVE: The Wash­ing­ton Cho­rus per­formed the Fifth Sym­phony by Philip Glass, be­low, last fall at the Kennedy Cen­ter. The work, al­most two hours long, is writ­ten for a huge or­ches­tra, five vo­cal soloists and adult and chil­dren’s cho­ruses, and tells the story of creation through sa­cred writ­ings. but it gets in the way of the creative process some­times.”

So, when Glass came over to work with the or­ches­tra on the sym­phony in early Jan­uary, he de­cided, af­ter three days of re­hearsals, that he needed to re­write the end­ing. “He was right; it paid off,” Davies says. “It sud­denly be­came much more dif­fi­cult to play and con­duct, but it ripped the au­di­ence right out of their seats.” That re­write wouldn’t have been pos­si­ble on a U.S. or­ches­tra’s re­hearsal sched­ule.

Davies has had sig­nif­i­cant in­put on a lot of Glass’s work over the decades. “I know there’s a real sub­stance to what he’s go­ing to bring,” he says, “and he knows I’m go­ing to bring a crit­i­cal point of view to it that he can trust. We’re able to talk right down to the struc­ture of the piece it­self.”

It’s audi­ble in the sym­phonic mu­sic — like the 5th Sym­phony, ded­i­cated to Davies, which the Wash­ing­ton Cho­rus re­cently per­formed in the District. It’s also audi­ble in the pi­ano mu­sic. Glass wrote the first six of his 20 pi­ano etudes for Davies, 20 years ago. “That lan­guage has de­vel­oped,” Davies ob­serves. The last 10 etudes were writ­ten for Maki Namekawa, Davies’s wife, a for­mer stu­dent of Pierre-Lau­rent Ai­mard, who has made some­thing of a calling card of per­form­ing the whole cy­cle.

Glass “told me this is the way he really loves to present to the au­di­ence,” Namekawa says. “To talk to the au­di­ence. Like read­ing po­ems. His pieces are very strong sen­tences. I’m feel­ing like I’m read­ing a poem for the au­di­ence. It’s a beau­ti­ful mo­ment; it’s really spe­cial.”

And you can hear it in “Four Move­ments for Two Pi­anos,” which Glass wrote for the cou­ple — whose duo con­certs have been ac­claimed by afi­ciona­dos for many years — in 2008, and which they will play at the cul­mi­na­tion of their Phillips recital.

“It’s [Glass’s] in­stru­ment,” Davies says of the pi­ano. “But as he says, now that he’s been in­volved with Maki and my­self, his pi­ano writing has be­come more dif­fi­cult. He doesn’t have the am­bi­tion to play it him­self; he wants to chal­lenge us.”

He can’t do any more to pro­mote Glass’s mu­sic than he’s al­ready done. But as to gain­ing wider recog­ni­tion for what Glass is really about, he can only be hope­ful. There are signs that some or­ches­tras are beginning to take note: The New York Phil­har­monic, for in­stance, is of­fer­ing Glass’s con­certo for two pi­anos next sea­son.

“They’re im­por­tant Amer­i­can pieces,” Davies says of Glass’s sym­phonic work. “I hope peo­ple will take a look at them.”

Den­nis Rus­sell Davies and Maki Namekawa will play Shostakovich’s “Con­certino for Two Pi­anos in A Mi­nor,” Stravin­sky’s “Le Sacre du Prin­temps,” Sch­w­ert­sik’s “In­ci­den­tal Mu­sic to Mac­beth” and Glass’s “Four Move­ments for Two Pi­anos” on Sun­day at 4 p.m. at the Phillips Col­lec­tion.

SCOTT SUCH­MAN

Den­nis Rus­sell Davies, top, a con­duc­tor and pre­em­i­nent author­ity on Glass’s work, says or­ches­tras are beginning to take note of the com­poser. Davies and his wife, Maki Namekawa, above, will per­form to­gether Sun­day at the Phillips Col­lec­tion.

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