We owe almost all Glass’s symphonies to the keen, indeed
cajoling enthusiasm of Dennis Russell Davies. The Ninth, quite
a marker in any symphonist’s work list, was commissioned
by a gaggle of great and good organisations - the Bruckner Orchestra,
Linz (who premiered it), Carnegie Hall, and the Los Angeles
Philharmonic Association. Its first performance was given at
the Brucknerhaus in Linz at the very end of 2011 and its US
premiere followed very soon after, at the start of 2012.
It’s in three movements and lasts three quarters of an
hour. It starts in an ominous D minor cast in a linear metric
ABA form. Glass being Glass, it’s not ‘developmental’,
though figures recur throughout either suspended rhetorically,
or actively driving. The ear is drawn to the percussive-led
drama of some of the writing, so too by the rich sonorities
he generates. There are episodes that take a few listens to
assimilate - I’m thinking of the rather weird Moroccan
or North African-sounding paragraphs in the first movement.
The ‘camel train across the desert’ aspect sounds
facetious the first time one hears it, but actually it accrues
depth, on repeated hearing, by virtue of its cinematic eventfulness.
The second movement reveals something that tends to be overlooked
in Glassian discussion; the occasional loveliness of his writing,
and its unabashed richness. Here, too, we hear that pervasive
ambulatory and questing spirit that animates so much of his
music, developing force in blocks - high winds and low brass
combine, chugging away, buttressed by dynamic percussion and
rhythm. I won’t be alone in hearing Ravel cross-pollinated
by film music in this movement.
Much of the finale is torrid, inaugurated by teeming brass,
and the spirit of convulsion is uppermost. Towards the very
end baleful final chords announce the irresolvable and unknowable
nature of things; there is a sense of striving, but toward what?
To what end?
It’s surely to Glass’s great credit that a Symphony
that many will dismiss as just another product of his shtick
can leave one with a terraced series of questions such as these.
No easy answers, then. No triumphant final chord. Instead, we
have a strong and purposeful work that grows more memorable
on repeated listening.