glass notes
Memories of a Volcano: Philip Glass’s Double Concerto for Violin & Cello “Eyjafjallajökull”

This weekend at the Cabrillo Festival for Contemporary Music cellist Matt Haimovitz and violinist Tim Fain will perform Philip Glass’s 2010 “Double Concerto for Violin & Cello” and it brings to mind a number of memories about the creation of the work leading up to its 2010 premiere.

Responding to a commission from the Netherlands Dance Theater, forever the “theater” composer, Glass proffered the idea of doing a double concerto with violin and cello in lieu of a standard ballet.  The two soloists would act as musical avatars to the two principal dancers on stage. Each orchestral movement would be preceded by a duo where the dancers would be separated from the company – thus addressing a major issue of concerto writing:  whether to pit the soloist(s) as heros battling against the orchestra or to have the soloists as aprt of the organic whole of the orchestra.  Glass had it both ways.  The duo sections present the violin & cello laid bare.

In the orchestral movements their role is not traditionally concertante in the tradition of a vituoso concerto. Even in the presentation of the ballet, the soloists would be in the pit yet elevated above the orchestra yet not quite on stage.  It was a good plan and Glass would have an opportunity to compose a concerto for two soloists that he had been working with closely at the time, violinist Maria Bachmann for whom he composed his Sonata for Violin and Piano, and cellist Wendy Sutter for whom he composed Songs & Poems for Solo Cello.  Everything came together well and one could hear in the piano reduction demos what a dynamic piece had been written. Later videos showed the completed piece that emerged, Swan Song, by choreographers Paul Lightfoot and Sol León was nothing short of beautiful.

Then a volcano erupted.  Glass’s Double Concerto, along with many other classical music pieces which premiered in Europe in the spring of 2010, might be subtitled “Eyjafjallajökull.”  The Icelandic volcano erupted on April 14th broadcasting a huge ash cloud over Europe practically eliminating the possibility of air travel over all of Europe for an extended period of time.

On April 22, 2010 the Hague Philharmonic under Jurjen Hempel premiered Glass’s new concerto not with Bachmann and Sutter but with violinist Cecilia Bernardini and cellist Maarte-Maria den Herder.  Glass was not present at the premiere nor had he ever met the soloists who premiered his concerto. It has happened, like the with recent premiere of his Partita for Solo Double Bass in June 2015 that Glass was not present for a premiere.  But I can think of only one other time that Glass was not present for the premiere of a major piece and that was weeks after September 11 when his Cello Concerto premiered in China when Glass was advised not to travel at that time.

Bachmann and Sutter finally arrived a few days after the premiere and resumed the run of 10 performances of the piece with the Netherlands Dance Theater.  The piece was also scheduled to be recorded so the dance troupe could perform Swan Song to the recording when on tour.  Because of rescheduling that took place because of all the disruptions in April and May, Bachmann, for whom the violon role was written, could not participate the recording sessions in June and another long-time collaborator of Glass, Tim Fain, jumped in and recorded the piece with Sutter in what I consider one of the best performances of a Glass work ever captured on recording.

Despite its somewhat troubled origins the piece has gone on to a life of its own having been performed under Jaap van Zweden in Dallas and in China with the  Hong Kong Philharmonic, Tucson, Denver, and Dusseldorf. This weekend’s performance represents the West Coast premiere for the five year old piece.

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