Northridge, California – site of the West Coast premiere of Glass’s Second Symphony in 2009
In Scott Hick’s 2007 documentary “Glass: A Portrait of Philip in Twelve Parts” one of the questions put to Glass is why he was he premiering his new major work “Waiting for the Barbarians” in the small city of Erfurt Germany, population 200,000. Glass responded with a laugh that he chose Erfurt because they were the ones who wanted to do it! Not Berlin and not Paris.
This is a common refrain in art. Most people assume that artists of all kinds can do whatever they want want. However the realities of being able to do certain things with certain people in certain places are actually what makes the world of music very interesting.
As I profiled last week, the city of Linz has become a creative hotbed for Glass over the past 13 years largely because of one devoted champion of his work: Dennis Russell Davies. We see this all over the world of classical music. James Levine was a big proponent of the music of Elliot Carter for the years he was with the Boston Symphony. Robert Spano has supported the work of Osvaldo Golijov, etc. Occasionally over time you start to see the trend transcend individuals and become part of a cultural fabric of a place. While Boston never became a “Carter” city, it is certainly a city which supports the music of Stravinsky and Bartok thanks to the efforts of the conductor of the Boston Symphony, Serge Koussevitzky. Seattle Symphony, under Gerard Schwarz, embraced the tradition of playing the music of Hovhaness and Diamond. It’ll be interesting to see then, when Davies leaves Linz after his appointment ends whether Glass’s music will continue to have a presence there.
What got me thinking about this subject of music and its laying down roots in a certain place were two events. The first occurred in 2009 when I noticed a performance of Glass’s Symphony No.2 happening at the University of California at Northridge. While I knew No.2 hadn’t been performed often after its 1994 premiere at BAM and its UK premiere in London, it was still a surprise to me that this major work was having its West Coast premiere with the UCAL Northridge (pop.27,500) Symphony Orchestra. Why Northridge? Because they were the ones who wanted to do it!
This type of thing happens all the time. Next month Glass’s Toltec Symphony will have its premiere under Maestro Paul Phillips and the Pioneer Valley Symphony in the Greenfield High School auditorium in the small town of Greenfield Massachusetts, population 17,500. Make no mistake, this is a major expensive undertaking for such a place. Those endeavoring spirits who choose to venture outside their own comfort zone (and often that of the audience , as well) are brave souls and are doing more for their audiences than the audience itself could ever know. The irony is that the orchestras who are most well equipped to take risks (if you even view performing something like Glass’s music as a risk), those have the most money tend to have the most conservative tastes. They prefer to engage of endless performances of “the masters” to dwindling audiences all the while paying lip-service to wanting to find new young audiences. The smaller orchestras, often performing high-wire acts of ingenuity just to survive, often have the most courage toward innovative and interesting programming meanwhile needing to distinguish themselves from all the other well-financed orchestras who do almost nothing but perform the 50 tried-and-true masterpieces.
Dennis Russell Davies touched on this subject over the weekend in the Irish Times: “I think it’s so important that the symphony orchestras, all of them, not listen to boards of directors who are worried about tickets selling, and continue to cultivate composers. If the composers don’t have an orchestra to write for, they won’t write for them any more.”
Those who follow me on Twitter might know that last week, over two days I listened to the entirety of the Glass Symphony cycle. To think that most of that music would have never been written without Davies’s urging makes me extremely grateful to him. Glass was extremely lucky to encounter a champion like Davies. As such, the tradition of performing Philip Glass’s music has followed Davies from Bonn and Stuttgart to Salzburg, Vienna, Linz and Basel. Carl St.Clair, another Glass advocate has devoted his life to classical music in Orange County where Glass’s intensely personal “Passion of Ramakrishna” has had two runs of performances in 2006 and again in 2011. The only other orchestra to take on this fine piece was its co-commissioner, the enterprising Nashville Symphony Orchestra (again under St.Clair). Someone on the outside could easier ask, “Why Costa Mesa, CA?” Because that’s where St.Clair was and he wanted to do it! And to date no one in New York or London, Paris or Berlin has wanted to do it. All the more kudos should go to St.Clair and the audiences in Orange County who embraced the piece each time.
So it’s very interesting to see how these things evolve. Glass has done three operas in Cambridge Massachusetts at the American Repertory Theatre (The Juniper Tree, Orphée, and Sound of a Voice). By and large, with the exception of the Los Angeles Philharmonic his symphonic work has been ignored by major American orchestras while finding a consistent audience elsewhere. Seattle saw Satyagraha in the 1980s as did Chicago, but only smaller Glass operas have been staged in those places since. Meanwhile, good notices and enthusiastic crowds could be found at productions of Orphée in Cooperstown, Norfolk Virginia, and Portland Oregon.
I used to have a feeling, as a fan, of wishing that my cultural institutions would take the plunge and perform Glass’s music. At this point I have been to probably hundreds of concerts of Glass’s music from a housing project in Poland to bars in Brooklyn and I have yet to see his music fall flat in front of an audience. While there’s always ample opportunity to hear Glass’s music in New York, it’s not always the case in the major American and international capitals. As a Glass fan attending a show, you are probably likely to find yourself in Columbia Maryland or Kutztown Pennsylvania as you are Chicago or Houston. In general, it must be said that there has been intense interest in the music now and it seems to continue to grow. Inasmuch, I see all this activity as a fortunate result of a grassroots campaign by Glass fans around the world.