Music review: The L.A. Phil plays John Adams and Philip Glass
Philip Glass’ big, new Ninth Symphony –- 52 minutes, written for a large, powerhouse orchestra –- is late Glass at his most momentous, a significant symphony by America’s most significant symphonist. Chalk up another one for the Los Angeles Philharmonic, which was a co-commissioner of the Ninth and which gave the West Coast premiere at Walt Disney Concert Hall on Thursday night. John Adams conducted.
That bit about Glass’ status as a contemporary American composer of symphonies is fact, not opinion.
But despite Glass’ prominence and his large body of symphonic work, that fact is not well known (or, at least, well acknowledged) among American orchestras.
Want to hear another Glass symphony in the next few months? Try Pforzheim, Germany (the Eighth), or Rotterdam, the Netherlands (the Fourth). As if the South of France didn’t already have enough summer attractions, Aix-en-Province is where Glass’ Tenth Symphony will have its world premiere in August.
On the other hand, in the 20 years Glass has been writing symphonies, very few American orchestras have ever performed one.
Glass’ 75th birthday was celebrated in January with the U.S. premiere of the Ninth at Carnegie Hall, but the America Composers Orchestra could muster only a measly 60 players. At Disney, a considerably larger L.A. Phil was in its full glory.
Although the Glass Ninth was part of a subscription concert, the orchestra did treat this as a special John Adams event. Adams' Violin Concerto with Leila Josefowicz as soloist was on the first half, and the musicians wore new-music black, jackets optional, instead of formal concert dress.
Glass always starts with something familiar. You know it's Glass from the very first with those slow, soft, somber, vacillating shifts from major to minor, the portentous repetitions, the moody stepwise melodies, the repeated cadences, the signature chugging rhythms. But then the airplane that takes you to Des Moines might look exactly the same as the airplane that takes you to Dar es Salaam.
The symphony is, in fact, full of surprising incident and strange landscapes once you attune yourself to the landscape and time frame. The gradual, built-up climaxes in the first and second movements have a majesty and radiance that is particular to Glass at his greatest moments. The middle movement is the longest, more than 20 minutes, and the jewel of the symphony. It opens in quiet, lush, heavenly beauty and has the radiant substance of a Bruckner slow movement.
Melodies seem simple but can tug deep with their elemental essence. Glass is the master of the orchestral surge, and while the performance had its momentary rough patches, the L.A. Phil brass and percussion were impressive. Adams brought the right spirit and rhythmic propulsion, which helped the players enter into a Glassian groove.
Before intermission, Adams set the mood for the evening with an improbably bracing account of Arvo Pärt’s meditative “Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten.” Adams' own Violin Concerto, which followed, was written in 1993 and first performed by the L.A. Phil four years later (with Adams conducting and Gidon Kremer as soloist). The concerto is now a classic, and Josefowicz is its current compulsive champion.
If she was slightly less feisty than usual -- even a little earth-mothery -- Thursday, that was because she is a month and a half away from giving birth. The first movement runs on with the endless melody of an Indian raga, and Josefowicz let it expand like a wondrous flower seen opening in stop-motion photography. The orchestra, though small, is busy, and her slender tone sometimes got lost. But in the cadenza her luminosity was dazzling.
Adams says of the slow movement, a haunting and complexly textured chaconne, that the violin is the “dream” that flows through the regular heartbeat of the orchestral “body." It was impossible not to sense that on this unusual occasion: Josefowicz was a soloist with two heartbeats within her, which actually doubled the sense of wonder she created in the first movement. But for the jazzy finale she conveyed all of her customary attitude that her physical condition would allow.
Next week she plays Esa-Pekka Salonen’s Violin Concerto in Boston. That’s some prenatal ride for her new son. Josefowicz will be able to remind him of her performance, because the L.A. Phil recorded it for an iTunes release.
-- Mark Swed
Los Angeles Philharmonic; Walt Disney Concert Hall, 111 S. Grand Ave., downtown L.A.; 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday (Friday's program does not include the Arvo Pärt piece.); $53-$180; (323) 850-2000 or www.laphil.com.
Photo: John Adams conducts the Los Angeles Philharmonic Thursday night at Walt Disney Concert Hall. Credit: Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles Times.