To those who have followed Philip Glass for a long time you will sympathize with me when I hesitate every time I mention Glass’s 1978 Violin Concerto as Violin Concerto No.1. The piece is such an important piece to me and it existed platonically in my mind as THE Philip Glass concerto that it’s hard, even today, to consider it against the backdrop of his 11 other concertos.
It was a remarkable thing for Glass to compose this piece, his first concert work for orchestra, at age 50 in 1987. The piece was personally symbolic to him in ways that most of his pieces are not. Glass composed the work for his father Ben Glass, a lover of classical music and the great concertos of the repertoire, as a piece that he thought his father might have liked had he lived to be able to hear it.
There are a few misconceptions about this piece. It’s my belief that Glass was already at such an advanced stage of his own compositional career when he wrote this work that he was not consciously attempting to write a “concerto” modeled on Mendelssohn’s famous second concerto. What Glass was attempting to do, I think, was to write something in that style. By style I don’t mean musical style but rather a piece of his own music and fit it into the format of a Romantic violin concerto. That is not self-evident as enough time has gone by that we now see that this piece alone has infiltrated the repertoire more effectively than any other concert piece he has ever composed. out’s so hard to see the poetic models for these pieces because of Glass’s musical personality being so strong. It’s like the ensemble pieces in Satyagraha in which a solo becomes a duet, becomes a trio. It was a play on that tradition. The process itself might hearken back to Mozart operas, yet no one would ever see that that’s in fact what he was doing.
And that is perhaps for good reason. With many exceptions, I have always felt that the most powerful period of Glass’s compositional output was between 1975 and 1987. During this period it seemed as if everything he did was unique, different, and great. In this period we see pieces as disparate as Satyagraha to Akhnaten, Koyaanisqatsi to Mishima, Glassworks to this Violin Concerto.
Perhaps some more background is needed. I first learned about Philip Glass in a history book in a music appreciation class. I heard of him within the context of a discussion of the lineage of the Western canon. So to me, discovering his music more than a decade after he composed this concerto, it seemed like a perfectly natural thing for this “classical” composer to do. At that point in 1997 Glass was only up to Symphony No.4 (half of his symphonic output had been drawn from the popular music of David Bowie and Brian Eno). This was hardly the wide ranging catalogue of concert music that we see today. This is to say that the appearance of a traditional violin concerto in 1987 was nothing short of a bizarre curiosity.
And for years that was the perception of this work, his first work for the concert hall. In the early 1990s violinist Gidon Kremer proposed touring the work across the United States and was refused (not very politely) and basically ridiculed. To the big orchestras this piece was viewed and understood as if Taylor Swift or Trent Reznor had composed a concerto. They didn’t understand what it was and it wasn’t something that they would seriously consider performing. It didn’t seem to matter that even to this day the manuscript of the concerto hangs on the wall in the lobby at Carnegie Hall where it had its premiere.
At the same time, much like the Bowie/Eno symphonies, this certainly couldn’t be viewed as a piece designed for “Pops” programs. Now two and a half decades later we see this concerto very clearly as a legitimate contribution to the violin concerto repertoire representative of its time and place and a particularly powerful example of a blossoming musical language. In other words, it’s a Violin Concerto! It’s now played by dozens of prominent violinists including Kremer, McDuffie, Capucon, Hanslip, Fain, Gomyo, and dozens of others.
The piece has been recorded three times (I just got word another prominent virtuoso is ready to record the piece this month). Kremer recorded the work with non-other than the old grand-daddy of orchestras the Vienna Philharmonic. Interestingly, the orchestra never performed the piece in concert. While the solo role is fantastically performed, I have always found this the least convincing orchestral performance of the available recordings being generally inaccurate and sloppy rhythmically (this is music whose lifeblood is rhythm). The recording on Naxos takes a slower tempo, with perhaps a less distinguished tempo but the conviction is there including the orchestral exclamation point at the key point of 5:23 of the first movement (an effect totally lacking from the other recordings.) The gold-standard for me has always been Robert McDuffie’s performance with the Houston Symphony under Eschenbach. The performance and recording itself are as clean as clean can be – and as we have seen now over the past two decades McDuffie is a committed advocate of this piece and he was the commissioner of the Second Concerto which he has also championed.
For me this piece will always be the most powerful and captivating of Glass’s concertos. An exclamatory and exciting first movement; a sumptuous and brilliantly patient second movement passacaglia; and a thrilling break-next third movement with perhaps the most captivating coda that Glass has ever written. This piece remains for me a watershed moment in Glass’s career.