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An Orchestral Tribute to David Bowie

On January 10th I found myself at Le Poisson Rouge (a club and music venue in New York known for its adventurous programming which includes classical music) at a concert called Montage in which pianist Gloria Cheng commissioned famous film composers including John Williams, Randy Newman, Michael Giacchino and Alexandre Desplat to compose solo piano concert works.  

Attending this concert was a friend and colleague John Mauceri, the well-known founding conductor of the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra.  The night before, on January 9th LPR had hosted a farewell concert to Pierre Boulez which was sold out.  I had in my possession copies of the symphonies of Philip Glass and I gave Mauceri a copy of all of them.  The following evening I received an email from the conductor about how seduced he was by the Low Symphony and how it would be appropriate to remember and memorialize David Bowie with a performance of the piece for it hasn't been heard in New York City since its premiere in 1992, 24 years ago.

So I made some inquiries and attempts to feel out how such an impromptu performance might happen in New York and the idea basically fizzled.  Since I live in the Boston area, I thought I might also bring the idea to composer/conductor Evan Ziporyn (formerly of Bang on a Can and faculty professor at MIT).  Ziporyn and I both had surprising feelings at the passing of David Bowie in that we were both surprised at how much we felt the loss.  We both admired the sort of middle ground of creativity – an indefinable space between musical genres, between acting and stage personas, a space where incredible creativity takes place and a place to which so few artists have the  courage to go.

This space is also, to me, a place where Philip Glass often ventures into with his work with musicians of all kinds whether they be indigenous Mexicans, Tibetan musicians, African kora players or singers, Australian didgeridoo, Brazilian percussion groups, and any other type of musician known or unknown.  This is not "fusion music" of any kind really – (personally I have always felt it's because Glass' musical personality is so strong that in a way many of his interactions end up sounding like "Glass Music") but rather these are musical encounters.  I also think that audiences have responded to these types of works because they are not caught up in artistic "schools" or factions or ideology; audiences are simply looking for interesting music.

It was not without controversy that Glass appropriated the music of David Bowie and Brian Eno when composing his first symphony in 1992 at the age of 55.  It was controversial not because he was using outside  'source material" as composers of the past like Bartok, Dvorak, Mahler, and many others had done.  It was because Glass had dared sully the concert hall with low music, pop music.  For Glass it was a simple matter of this music being beautiful by any standard, but also that it was as much part of the tradition of new and experimental music as anything by avant-garde composers of the same period.

So while in New York Low Symphony (1992) and Heroes Symphony (1996) had been performed only once each (the latter received a belated premiere in 2011) these pieces have never been performed at all in the Boston area.  Ziporyn took my suggestion and ran with it proposing not only to perform Low Symphony, but to perform both symphonies in the Boston premieres, present the project to the public as an 'Orchestral Tribute to David Bowie' and to use all proceeds to benefit cancer research.  

So for a week and a half now we have been working towards that goal.  With the help of a few wonderful musicians, Ziporyn put out a call for an all-volunteer orchestra of fine Boston area musicians including area professionals and even some students from MIT.  A roster of over 80 players has assembled and donated their time to this project and are in the midst of rehearsals this week.  I will be reporting on the event via Twitter over the coming days as we crescendo into Friday night's performance.  

We are incredibly grateful to all who have helped put this together.  Ideas are cheap but execution is hard and everyone from the Concerts Department at MIT who made the main auditorium, Kresge, available for this purpose as well as all the musicians, Evan Ziporyn, and a great number of other people. Usually orchestral concerts of this kind take months if not years to organize. To put something together like this in two weeks is nothing short of amazing.  It was extremely validating to have sold-out in two days time.

Hope to see you there.

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