The latest in our series of reviews by Alastair Macaulay of the Philharmonia’s 75th Anniversary Year captures last night’s concert of Unequal: Philip Glass and John Adams:
the Philharmonic Orchestra and the Labèque Sisters; Glass and Adams 2021.x.22
by Alastair Macaulay
Forty years ago, when the music of Philip Glass was still uncharted territory for many of us, the first experiences of his minimalism were fabulously baffling: they seemed to exemplify the “disruption of the senses” that the poet Rimbaud wanted the art of being. The musical effects that we felt we knew were repeated and recycled in a structural way that resembled earthquakes.
Sooner or later, however, most of Glass’s music turns out to be less disturbing than it originally was. And some of Glass’s music turns out to be manipulative twaddle (the hugely popular In the Upper Room, for example), a shameless series of wow effects.
Even so, Glass remains a central figure in the music of our time; it’s good that his work is included in the Man / Nature season of the Philharmonia Orchestra this fall. The original plan for Thursday’s concert was for his Philip Glass Ensemble to join the Philharmonia to perform his music for the film “Koyaanisqatsi”. When Covid restrictions made it too difficult for the Glass Ensemble to cross the Atlantic, another minimalist program was put together, with pianists Katie and Marielle Labèque at the center, and Dutch-Maltese conductor Lawrence Renes at the podium.
It is for these two famous Labèque sisters that Glass composed his “Double Orchester pour Deux Pianos et Orchester” (2015), and for them that his long-time collaborator Michael Riesman created, in 2020, the “Suite Les Enfants Terribles”. From Glass’s 1996 opera. . This revised program was not entirely glass: it now ended with the “Doctor Atomic Symphony” by another minimalist, ten years younger than Glass, John Adams.
Glass’s (1982-1983) “Akhnaton’s Prelude”, the oldest and best-known element of the program, opened the program. It will always be a perfect example of the Glass style: there is real poetry in its recycling, its changes of pulse, its ancient and modern sound world, its clue that we are hearing the inexorable cogs of history.
The “Suite des Enfants Terribles” that followed turned out to be, to my surprise, the masterpiece of the evening. At first, when the Labèque sisters walked in, dressed identically (same hairstyles up to the shoulders, same white shirts with a train down to the ankles, same black leggings and black shoes with ultra-high heels), it seemed alarming that they gently introduced themselves as “terrible children”. But no. Once they started performing, they turned out to be coldly dedicated performers.
Glass’s “Enfants Terribles” – the second of three works by Glass based on creations by Jean Cocteau – is a danced chamber opera (1996). Never having seen it, I now yearn for – and yet could it match the intimate beauty of Michael Riesman’s two-piano suite? The Labèques played it with devout objectivity. While each section illustrates the moods and actions of the narrative scenes, the entire work becomes a series of studies of subtle and enchanting poetry.
Here and there, echoes of many older composers (Beethoven, Chopin, Debussy) – yet they are incidental. This music is an open sesame of touching rhythmic structures and intensely atmospheric piano colors. I want to call it the most beautiful of the many glass compositions I have heard; I congratulate Riesman on the glorious sensitivity to piano sound he evokes here.
The two works that followed the intermission brought many members of the Philharmonia onto the stage of Festival Hall; their game was excellent. I’m sorry that couldn’t redeem overdone compositions.
Glass’s Double Concerto, conducted by René and the Labèques, is a vast collection of nothing great. Yes, this breaks many of the conventions of the concerto form, but so what? The punchy rhythm of the first movement and the mundane percussion effects are embarrassing; the second turns into an animated quagmire. The best moments occur in the final movement, with a right hand piano line melting into the woods early on and an interesting and melancholy unresolved conclusion. Those, however, aren’t enough to redeem a score that seems determined to accompany the suspensors of a sub-Hitchcock thriller.
Like Glass, John Adams is a minimalist at times capable of thrilling and colorful scores. Not so “Doctor Atomic Symphony” (2007). Adams’ opera “Doctor Atomic” is about the construction of the first atomic bomb – but his symphony does no better than his opera at turning a memorable story into a poetic drama.