IN: Reviews

Minimalist’s Birthday Bash


Benjamin Park

In an exuberant celebration for Philip Glass’s 80th birthday, a large and enthused audience at Jordan Hall on Saturday joined BMOP in expressing their appreciation and appetite for this composer’s mark on the orchestra. The concert reminded us of the satisfactions of experiencing Glass’s expansive music live.

As a beautifully diverse and captivating precursor to the music of Glass, the young Boston-native composer Benjamin Park’s The Dwarf Planets (2014/2017) demonstrated compositional maturity with imaginative contrasts and colorful orchestrations. Winner of the 2017 BMOP/NEC Composition Competition, Park uses Holst’s iconic planetary cycle as a jumping-off point, paying homage to the lesser known cosmic entities with their deified names. Having started off as a physics major at MIT, Park is currently in his doctoral studies at New England Conservatory as a part of Kati Agócs’ composition studio. Through five distinct and compact movements, Park clearly projected his ideals of color and form. Much like Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition or Schuller’s Seven Studies on Themes of Paul Klee, an isolated characteristic of each deity is captured as individual portraits. In the pre-concert talk with host Robert Kirzinger, he mentioned the importance of abstract musical narrative, how ideas or images can become musical entities.

In Pluto, the opening movement on the recently-demoted orb, brass fanfares connect this work with sonic world of Holst’s The Planets. Though employing an obvious aural allusion, Park maintains his own voice through the movement. The influence of Minimalism most prominently arrives in Ceres, with a stream of notes and a simple, floating English horn melody played pastorally by Jennifer Slowik. The third movement, Makemake, Creator of Humanity, employs driving triplets and violin-section melodies to evoke the film score archetype (In the pre-concert talk, Park cited John Williams’s music as a meaningful facet of his childhood). The subsequent movement succinctly captures the other spectrum of the epic film score; that is, the cathartic and emotional theme. Conductor Gil Rose, with his clarity of focus, guided the deliberate and frenetic energy of the final movement Eris, Goddess of Chaos, through its contrasting phrases and impassioned gestures.

Though the distinct, memorable movements each captured tangible colors and made strong impact, one can hope that the composer will develop these various images and musical ideas into more elaborated forms; indeed, Boston has much to look forward to with this composer’s emerging career.

The eminent Russian pianist Anton Batagov joined the orchestra for the Tirol Concerto (2000), a lesser known work by Philip Glass that delivers emotive excitement. With the accompaniment pared down to strings, it succeeds when it achieves a proper relationship between soloist and ensemble. Through Gil Rose’s steadfast precision and attentiveness, the ensemble locked into Batagov’s organic dynamics, sensitivity, and rhythmic vitality.

Anton Batagov with Gil Rose (Photo Credit: Robert Kirzinger)

Opening with a phrase akin to the chordal exercises Glass relentlessly worked through with Nadia Boulanger, Batagov stated the theme with placid certainty before the light accompaniment joined in. The reactionary accompaniment differentiates it from the typical concerto, for it comes in and out unexpectedly between the numerous sectionalized phrases. Minute details in the live performance, such as the articulation and vibrant color of low notes, contributed to a result that eludes replication on recordings of this work. The significantly longer second movement is a strong reminder of the immense emotional capacity of Glass’s plaintive and lyrical passages. In Movement II, with its three-against-two pulse stream alternating between pianist and orchestra along with the stretching violin-section melodies led eloquently by violinist Gabriela Diaz, the audience could experience the dramatic openness and ambiguity of time often present in this music. Taking the idea of non-directed temporality from theorist Jonathan Kramer, the sense of time is minimized, allowing one to simply abide in the color of the orchestra. When the opening motive and harmonic progression realign again, the pianist comes back to the theme with a fresh and new intention. The many metrical turns and irregular groupings typical in many of final movements of Glass contribute to the playful and lively temperament of the third movement. While most of the movement is extroverted and active, Batagov’s effective use of the left pedal created subtle changes by affecting the piano’s presence in the hall.

After rounds of ovation, the reverential soloist silenced the audience to introduce an encore, a special surprise in concluding the first half. As a sign of his intimate connection with Glass’s music and his own abilities as arranger, he performed a solo arrangement of material from the composer’s film score “The Hours” in front of a rapt orchestra and audience. With a careful touch and dense counterpoint, the sound of the orchestra seemed to emerge through the inner voices.

As the stage filled with a healthy-sized orchestra that included two harps, contrabass clarinet, and full woodwind and brass sections for the second half, Anton Batagov, now in street clothes, managed to join the audience. This seasoned interpreter could evidently not pass up listening to Glass’s symphonic repertoire.

Of the eleven symphonies that Glass has written—the eleventh having just had its premiere on January 31st, the composer’s birthday—the second symphony seems the most connected to the historical symphonic tradition. In his pre-concert talk, Richard Guerin, the head of Orange Mountain Music (Glass’s label) explained that while Glass’s first symphony constituted a musical response to David Bowie’s album Heroes, his next attempt cast itself as abstract carrying with it identifiable Shostakovich and Mahler influences (both composers on the program reference Mahler’s orchestrational colors in their music). Guerin referenced an important interview with Glass [here] that reveals his connection with the classical orchestral tradition alongside influences such as Ravi Shankar, experimental theater, and popular rock genres.

With the timbral combination of cellos and harps, the symphony begins, continuing at a slow, gradually increasing energy, comparable to the introduction of Koyaanisqatsi. The patient embrace of the long exposition revealed the conductor’s formal awareness. While the orchestra moves forward as one, a significant change becomes discernible with the arrival of the forcibly bright and radiant woodwind section. By quickly transitioning between movements, the second movement started unexpectedly, suggesting that there was maybe no beginning, and that maybe the music simultaneously positions itself in the present and the continuous. Beautiful timbres abound in this movement: the gracefully reserved woodwind soloists link together with ease; the contrasting juxtapositions with the brass entrances, evoking momentary fierceness heard in Shostakovich; and the ringing of triangle, cymbals, and tambourine rose above the entire orchestra texture. In an imaginative colorful harmonic-like gesture, the piccolo, performed by the sublimely tasteful Jessica Lizak, shimmers above the violin section with exact intonation and purity. The third movement, with its rapid motion and transmogrified layers, brought out further textural contrasts. With a vibrant orange hue, the music finds itself jumping between mechanical churnings and the triumphant brass (robustly steered by the trumpet section and principal Richard Kelley). Because of the many tiresome syncopations and grouping issues, the music at times almost became unhinged from the groove; despite this precarious position, the frantic music found its support in the stalwart brass and percussion sections. In a commendable feat, the low brass could be heard taking the reins at the end, continuing to push the music to the verge of eruption. Tubist Kenneth Amis (whose was heard with an exceptional duo with exacting contrabass clarinetist Amy Advocat earlier in the movement), along with Chris Beaudry on bass trombone, provided the aggressive momentum essential to the symphony’s climactic resolution.

Philip Glass

Perhaps because Glass chose to write his first symphony when 55 years old, his musical language, defined by well-crafted orchestration, pure abstract quality, and formal arc, places this 45-minute No. 2 within the larger symphonic tradition. Both BMOP’s appreciation towards this significant composer’s career and its now grandfatherly influence on Park was abundantly evident. The coupling of intimacy and expansiveness wove a clear thematic thread throughout the night.

David Stevens is a Boston-based saxophonist and woodwind doubler, recently graduated from NEC with a double master’s in saxophone performance and music theory. In addition to performing, he spends much of his time as an educator, arts administrator, and theorist.

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  1. It may be of note that Jessica Lizak was the piccolo player in the aforementioned review of the Glass Symphony No. 2 in this BMOP concert. Just a small correction.

    Comment by Audience Member — February 23, 2017 at 8:11 am

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