Glass’ Film Music

Philip Glass

Composer Philip Glass

I heard  “The Film Music of Philip Glass,“  a concert last night by the  Manitoba Chamber Orchestra at the intimate Glenn Gould Studio conducted by Anne Manson with Michael Riesman, piano soloist.  The concert was recorded for a CD that I am looking forward to obtaining, in order to allow me the pleasure of hearing this music again.

Although Glass has an enormous number of projects listed on IMDB   he has yet to win an Academy Award, and is not known for film music, or at least is not synonymous with film music, the way we might observe of  such big names as  John Williams or Danny Elfman. But then again Glass came to Hollywood via artistic rather than commercial pathways; he reminds me of another serious artist who achieved mainstream success, namely Bernard Herrmann, who dreamed of the kind of legitimacy as an opera composer that is Glass’ calling card.  This season for example, the Metropolitan Opera will include Satyagraha, a revival of an earlier production of one of his ‘portrait operas’ in its high definition broadcasts.

The concert opened and closed with a work for piano and orchestra based on a film.  The “Suite from Dracula” goes with the 1931 film, while the “Suite from The Hours” is based on cues in Glass’ 2002 score for the film, assembled at least partly by Michael Riesman, the soloist on this occasion.  In between was Glass’ Symphony #3, a composition whose connection to film is unclear to me ; but then again, perhaps that will be explained in the CD’s liner notes.

Riesman apologized that he forgot to give his introduction to the Dracula music, perhaps mesmerized by the warm applause with which he was greeted.  I wish I had seen Dracula with Glass’ music, so that I might have a better idea how it’s meant to work.  As a stand-alone composition I was unconvinced, finding the music insubstantial, but pleasant: which is probably all one can ask of film music.

Manson & Glass

Conductor Anne Manson with composer Philip Glass

For me the highlight of the evening was Glass’ Symphony 3,  a work that demonstrated the strengths of the orchestra and its relationship with conductor Manson.    Over the years I have been a bit in awe of Glass’ compositions in performance, which are daunting in their requirement of a strict meter that neither accelerates nor drags, played meticulously.  When I think back on all the Glass I’ve heard (and it’s a lot, going back to a concert in 1977, the North American premiere of Satyagraha in 1981, his score for La Belle et la Bête, films such as Koyaanisqatsi, Mishima as well as many more recordings I obtained) the requirement of precision represents a particular kind of virtuosity that may dazzle yet also puts a kind of strait jacket over the performance.  Glass himself remarked –at the time of his Metropolitan Opera production of Satyagraha– that he welcomed new approaches and interpretations of his work; if so I believe Glass would be thrilled with the original approach Manson brings to these works.  In a nutshell, she relaxes the strait-jacket.  The solos have the wonderful give and take one usually finds in a concerto of Mozart or Beethoven, where one allows the piece to have an organic shape rather than observing the crystalline tyranny that one finds in the performances by Glass’ own ensemble.  One doesn’t argue with the composer, but then again, sometimes a new interpreter can bring something fresh to the table.

The third movement of the Third Symphony is an especially wonderful creation, whose origins are explained somewhat by the composer.  The key movement is the third one, whose construction reminds me a bit of Pachelbel’s canon, building from a simple core in the first passage to more and more elaborate construction of solo lines over top, as you can hear in this performance.  Manson and the Manitoba Chamber Orchestra achieve a wonderfully delicate balance in the intimate confines of the Glenn Gould Studio.

Here’s an example of that wonderful third movement from youtube: 

Finally, Riesman returned for a piano concerto based on the music in The Hours.  Some time over a hundred years ago composers were taken captive by the collective notion that the audience prefers a display of skill from the pianist.  For the longest time, no one was willing to write any other sort of concerto, perhaps afraid to fail in a kind of test of their manhood.  While no one measures such things, as far as virtuosity is concerned Glass has written a concerto that is mostly under the hand, rarely very fast and wonderfully lyrical without being taxing.  Of course that ship –classical compositions with any kind of audience—has all but sailed, so that by now, there are no rules, no requirements really.  Glass gave us something beautiful, tuneful, and Riesman gave the authoritative reading.

Now I am impatient to get my hands on that CD…(!)

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