The Bruckner Orchestra of Linz, under its chief conductor, Dennis Russell Davies, came to Stanford’s Bing Concert Hall Sunday, Feb. 12, to play Philip Glass’ Symphony No. 11, which they had been taking across the country since giving the first performance at Carnegie Hall in New York two weeks earlier, on the occasion of the composer’s 80th birthday.
The new Glass symphony sounds just like the previous three Glass symphonies. Accordingly, all the Glass fans in the audience, including myself, loved it. The piece got a huge standing ovation.
The concert music that Glass has been composing recently is dark-toned, mostly devoid of the bright colors favored by younger composers. It’s highly intense and it churns restlessly. Glass left behind him over 40 years ago the kind of minimalism he’s pilloried for. He now uses minimalist techniques as a toolbox, a technique within music that has formal variety and both large and small-scale movement. It goes somewhere and does it interestingly.
Like the Eighth and Ninth, the 11th is in three movements and lasts a bit over half an hour. Each movement begins quietly, building up gradually to tremendous power from the full orchestra. Only the middle movement, full of pillowy strings, builds down again afterwards, in acknowledgment that it’s supposed to be the slow one.
The first movement begins with piano and harps playing a typical Glass ostinato noodle, to which low brass quickly add blatting staccato chords. As the movement builds up, there’s lots of percussion behind it: There were eight players in that section altogether. This makes for spicier and more jagged music than the Eighth or Ninth, more like the percussion-heavy 10th. And, like the finale of the 10th, the finale of the 11th begins with unaccompanied percussion, quickly joined here by the low brass again.
There’s something reminiscent of the 18th century in the aesthetics of the way this music is intended to strike the listener. It may seem simplistic to those who prefer music so densely complex its patterns can only be detected by deep study of the score, but there’s actually a lot going on in Glass’ music: cross-rhythms, motivic development, interesting timbres. Even though the recent symphonies all sound alike, each has its own particular things to say.
Suitably for the music of its namesake composer, the Bruckner Orchestra performs on the slow and stately side. This could be heard most clearly in another work on the program, the orchestral suite from Duke Ellington’s jazz composition “Black, Brown and Beige.” Despite many notably jazzy touches, including some virtuosic muted brass, this big work came across as dark and heavy, especially in the hammer-strokes of the “Work Song” movement. It was a suitable partner for the Glass: a heftier, dignified, more classical-sounding work than in other performances I’ve heard.
One more piece on the program was by Samuel Barber, completing a portrait of three styles of American composition: minimalism from Glass, jazz from Ellington and neo-Romanticism from Barber. His Violin Concerto, like Glass’ music, has been criticized for being simplistic, even childish. This hasn’t prevented it from being beautiful or from becoming well-loved.
Robert McDuffie was an ideal soloist for this unassuming concerto. Casual in his dress and manner, he was reminiscent of Gil Shaham in his relaxed and carefree playing. From his Guarneri he produced a smooth, mellow sound vaguely resembling that of a clarinet.
Unlike the other two works, Barber’s is lightly scored and mostly quiet. Bing is a small and acoustically vibrant hall. When both McDuffie and the orchestra were playing in their softest register, the sound was clear and penetrating. At occasional fortes, however, the hall would blow an acoustic gasket. The sound became harsh and fuzzy. This was less of a problem with the other works’ darker orchestration.