Glass Notes publishes an update every week on Mondays.
In advance of the release of the recording of the new concerto on Friday, I thought I might include my original and expanded liner notes for the iTunes album.
In a series of works that dates back to 1987 when Philip Glass composed his Violin Concerto No.1 which premiered at Carnegie Hall (the manuscript hangs on the wall inside the venerable institution), Glass has gone on to compose twelve concertos, nine of which have been composed since the year 2000. The form really caught the composer’s attention when he embraced the inherent narrative concept of the concerto as typified by the soloist positioned as a hero who fights against, and almost without fail, triumphs over the orchestra. In variation, this model has been composed many times by Glass and countless other composers throughout time. Only in Glass's recent concertos including his Double Concerto for Violin & Cello has Glass diverged from the classic heroic model of the concerto. Instead Glass has developed a new compositional approach in which the orchestra functions as an organic extension of the soloists.
Dispatching totally with any sort of introduction, in Philip Glass’s Double Concerto for Two Pianos & Orchestra (2015) from the very first bar we hear that the pianos and the orchestras are part of one tapestry of sound. The orchestration itself seems to treat the orchestra pianistically. All throughout the work one hears the pianists playing figures which are doubled by sections of the orchestra, or where the range of certain instruments end, other instruments pick up the thread and continues melodic or rhythmic line. It’s not the approach that one would find in a concerto grosso where sections of the orchestra act as soloists but rather an effect of the pianos being the leader of one big band on equal footing.
This approach not only provides orchestrational flexibility, but also in the musical language itself. In Glass’s very recent works we find an unusual density for a composer who is widely known for economy of means. This Double Concerto is packed thick with frenetic movement as if ten ideas are coming at you at the same time all layered one upon another. As such, at the opening of the piece we are thrown right into the midst of a joyous carnival. Indeed, Glass himself categorized the first two movements as being joyous in character. The third movement unwinds into music of a more lugubrious character. Generally speaking, this is some of the most dense music Glass has ever written. It’s also perhaps his most chromatic.
Entering the quicksand of composing chromatic music has the potential to either be imitative or collapse under its own weight. What Glass accomplishes in this piece is writing a piece full of thick harmony and constant change based somewhat on chromatic movement. This is a dangerous direction for any tonal composer to embark on (who wants to relive the 20th Century?). However, there are real benefits in Glass’s idiom which are rewarding including the emphasis placed on passing tones giving them more weight and importance than in any of his other music. Glass enters those waters with a joy and fluidity which has become the hallmark of his very recent music.
The Los Angeles Philharmonic is the most dynamic performing arts organization in North America. It’s also the only American orchestra with a consistent commitment to the music of Philip Glass having performed a great deal of Glass’s music in the last decade including Violin Concerto No.1 at the Hollywood Bowl with concertmaster Martin Chalifour as soloist under Leonard Slatkin, Interludes from Glass’s opera Orphée, Symphony No.3 also at the Bowl set to choreography by Diavolo in a piece called “Fluid Infiinities.” The orchestra commissioned Symphony No.9 that was conducted by John Adams in its West Coast premiere in 2012 in celebration of Glass’s 75th birthday. Adams also conducted scenes from Akhnaten as part of the orchestra’s Minimalist Jukebox in 2006. In a collaboration with the Los Angeles Master Chorale the orchestra and chorus performed Glass’s opera The Civil Wars under Grant Gershon in 2014. Glass made his belated Hollywood Bowl debut with the Los Angeles Philharmonic in 2009 when the orchestra commissioned and premiered the orchestral treatment of Koyaanisqatsi live-to-film with the Philip Glass Ensemble. It prompted a second similar commission to orchestrate Glass’s Powaqqatsi in 2011, again with the Philip Glass Ensemble. However none of these pieces were world premieres of a new piece and so it was with great relish that Glass composed his Double Concerto for Two Pianos for the organization that has given him so much, and for the first time an opportunity for collaboration with its music director Gustavo Dudamel. Having never worked together before, Glass was impressed at something that transpired in rehearsals before the premiere of the new concerto, some he had never experienced before.
It’s not uncommon that during rehearsals that certain orchestration is adjusted to make the balances work the way a composer imagined them. At one point, during the final rehearsal, Glass approached Dudamel with a concern about the balances of instruments. While considering changes to the dynamics in the score, Dudamel jumped into action and simply reconfigured the way the instrumental groups had been placed on the stage. This is something Glass had never encountered. When orchestra and soloists played the problematic passage again it had been corrected, as if by magic. It was an example of how well the conductor knows the acoustic of Walt Disney Concert Hall.
Katia and Marielle Labèque are known as perhaps the most celebrated piano duo of their generation. Tireless champions of the new and old, the duo began performing the music of Philip Glass in the past five years with his piece Four Movements for Two Pianos. This led to Glass composing a new piece in 2013 for the Labèques and the Namekawa-Davies duo together called Two Movements for Four Pianos. So this opportunity to compose a new work for soloists, conductor, and orchestra that were personally and artistically important to Glass proved to be an irresistible opportunity. The result of that collaboration can be heard on this current recording which was made during the live first performances of this new concerto by Philip Glass.
– Richard Guérin, Salem, MA 2015