Ever since the 1970s
Philip Glass has consistently proved
himself to be one of the great composers
of our time. Along with the other American
minimalists, he led the way back to
tonal, accessible music in the symphonic
setting. Without him, Steve Reich, and
Terry Riley, one wonders exactly what
modern symphonic music would be. Their
exploration into the music of the Indian
subcontinent resulted in the definitive
symphonic compositions of the past thirty
years. Glass himself has written several
operas and film scores in addition to
his concertos for various instruments.
However, even given
the importance of his writing, his music
cannot be considered to be flawless.
By his own admission, much of his early
music was repetitive to an extreme.
While this was intentional, it was far
too easy for it to be burdensome to
the listener. As Glass has continued
to write he learned to make his works
more melodic and emotive. The works
here, both written since 2001, are illustrative
of the music he has created since he
consciously reapplied himself to melodic
invention to truly flesh out his minimalist
style, making it accessible to almost
The first work is for
his Concerto for Cello and Orchestra,
originally debuted at the Beijing Music
Festival in 2001. The soloist here is
Julian Lloyd-Webber, the same man who
first played the work when it debuted
in Beijing. The work is performed wonderfully,
and displays the fully mature Glass
as a master composer capable of melding
the radical minimalism of his youth
with the impassioned music of the neo-Romantics.
The work has all the earmarks of a true
masterpiece. It feels innovative and
free while finding a place rooted among
the great works of the past.
The opening theme sounds
much like the movement of a murky river.
It is dark, churning, powerful and irresistible.
This alternates with a much more hopeful
and energetic, yet mechanistic, theme
that seems to allude to an optimistic
view of technology in civilization.
The second movement opens with a statement
of majesty and statesmanship, with less
underlying tension and a more distinguished
tempo. It also could be interpreted
as a love theme of sorts, with the cello
emoting hope, dignity and pensiveness
in turns. The third movement recalls
the influence of his film scores written
by Glass and his contemporaries, perhaps
with an ear towards Danny Elfman while
voicing the orchestra. While Glass has
always definitively used ostinato as
a construct, many of the lines he uses
hark back to the Elfman film scores.
There is a sense of dark humor in this
movement, and a feeling of joy being
taken from the dark modes and minor
tonalities. At several points one hears
echoes of Glass as a young man. Yet
he never loses sight of his melodic
and thematic composition.
The second work, Concerto
Fantasy for Two Timpanists and Orchestra,
leans more towards Steve Reich as it
is for two timpanists and orchestra.
It was commissioned nearly ten years
before its debut Written for virtuoso
timpanist Jonathan Haas, who has nearly
single-handedly raised the status of
the timpani to that of a solo instrument,
the piece features both he and Evelyn
Glennie playing a total of 14 timpani
through three movements and a cadenza.
The initial movement is heroic and energetic
and would easily feel at home in any
adventure movie of the past fifty years.
The repetition of the orchestra drives
the work along in a nearly mechanical
groove. However the 14 timpani are given
the lead and melody, giving a melodic
center matching the astounding pace
of chordal planing and tireless tonal
shifting. The second movement bows to
Holst’s The Planets with its
heroic scope and foreboding feel. Eventually
though, the standard Philip Glass harmonies
and melodic lines allow us to recognize
the composer. At the end, Glass’s distinctive
and nearly primal use of chimes in conjunction
with the timpani drive the work forward.
This leads into the cadenza for the
two timpanists and interspersed percussion.
Much of the material quotes from the
earlier movements, but is wholly distinctive
by standing alone from the symphonic
instruments. Finally the finale is a
mixed meter work that alternates between
4/4 and 7/8. ‘World music’ has influenced
much of Glass’s mature work and is a
presence here, though through a distinctly
dramatic synthesis. This is the music
of a fantastic world that straddles
mythic shaman and adventure hero.
In general the Concerto
Fantasy for Two Timpanists and Orchestra
is a terrifically fun piece. It brings
together all that Glass has learned
in symphonic, operatic, and cinematic
work. Truly this must be considered
a masterpiece in Glass’s repertoire.
It simultaneously seems both wholly
new in instrumentation and wholly familiar.
Both works are performed
impeccably. One could hardly wish for
a better rendering of the music. Glass
should be infinitely pleased with these
The liner notes are
historically informative, explaining
how the works themselves were conceived
and commissioned. Julian Lloyd-Webber
contributes a few paragraphs detailing
the nature of their collaboration when
Glass was writing the Concerto for
Cello and Orchestra. Jonathan Haas’s
contribution is a bit longer and more
technical, as he discusses the metrical
construction of the Timpani Fantasy
in addition to the history of his commissioning
of the work. As the composition was
created over the course of a decade,
and was preceded by another work entitled
Prelude to Endgame for timpani
and double bass, the story is quite
interesting. Additionally Evelyn Glennie
contributes her notes on the Concerto
Fantasy in addition to the standard
fare that one expects detailing the
composer, conductor, and orchestra.
The soloists’ additions make the music
more intelligible and add enjoyment
to their performances.
There is little fault
that one could find in these recordings.
The soloists are among the greatest
players of their generation. Additionally
they have the advantage of performing
works written expressly for them. As
for myself, I have listened to this
album at least a dozen times since it
was given to me for this review. Each
time I am struck by how powerful Glass’s
music has become and how innovative
he truly is. The current plan is for
Glass and Orange Mountain Music to deliver
four volumes of concertos. They have
set the standard very high for the four
albums to come. Anyone who enjoys the
work of Gustav Holst, Aaron Copland,
Leonard Bernstein, John Williams, or
especially Philip Glass will enjoy this