glass notes
Why Erfurt?


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.

10 thoughts on “Why Erfurt?”

  1. Amen to this. I am beyond frustrated at the present dynamic with bigger orchestras.
    It’s not just them though, it’s their audiences. We say John Adams conduct his Harmonielehre with the Seattle Symphony. On the way down to our car, we listened to an older patron whine about that piece specifically. We pushed back (gently), but it was clear she didn’t want to hear anything newer than the Romantic era.

  2. This interesting entry reminded me of two quotes from Glass. An early one: “I don’t waste my time very much with worrying about working with orchestras… You get very little commitment…You get very few performances, and it’s all a headache from my point of view”. This of course changed, starting with the “portraits of nature” trilogy (and then with the mostly abstract symphonies), but the truth in Glass words remains: there are very few performances, and (from my limited experience) when Glass (or a “Glass champion”) is not involved, the performances aren’t that good either. When you play a “classic” symphony for the dozens of times, you master it. A one time performance in a musical style that is alien to (most of) the orchestra players tends to be mechanical.
    The second quote: “One thing that distinguishes me from other people of my generation is simply, I have more profile and that’s because I’m interested in bringing this work to the public in a very big way.  I love the fact that thousands of people come to a concert. . . .  I happen to be better known than other people because I played that game and I enjoy it.  I enjoy the game of being in the Daily News; it’s fun and I’m not afraid of it”. That’s an important factor in Glass’ success.
    What will happen several decades from now, when Glass is not around to promote his music? Are there going to be new “Glass champions” that will push the music to orchestras (assuming that orchestras will survive that long)? Currently Glass symphonies can fill the requirement for “contemporary” works in the repertoire, but soon they won’t be contemporary anymore, and they’ll have to compete with Beethoven on the same level, while the debt to contemporary music will be filled by active composers. Will Glass orchestral music survive that? I’m not sure. I think that chamber works such as string quartets and solo piano pieces have a greater chance to continue to live and evolve in live performances. It’s not that bad really: the Beatles haven’t played live in 50 years, but I think it’s a sure bet that their music will still be listened to in 50 years time, thanks to the recordings. That’s why the Orange Mountain Music releases are so important. With the orchestral output of Glass, most of the recordings are fine and are a good heritage for future generations (especially after the release of the new recording of the 1st symphony, which leaves only the 2nd one in a dire need for a new recording, alone with the butchered Satyagraha). (BTW, there’s a 35 pages article by Jeremy Grimshaw called “High, “Low,” and Plastic Arts: Philip Glass and the Symphony in the Age of Postproduction” in The Musical Quarterly from Autumn 2002 analyzing the original Point recording of the Low symphony, I wonder what are its conclusions). The same goes for the PGE early works (the re-recordings, even by the PGE itsef, never matched the original recordings). The important soundtracks will be well preserved together with the movies, so it seems that the only real problem will be for the operas, for which a sound recording is not a full substitute.
    I wonder if Glass himself is worried about the fate of his music 50 years from now. I remember him saying that he doesn’t care, but that was many many years ago.

  3. After reading the comment about the Adams’ piece, I can’t help my self from re-posting this:
    The Simpson’s Springfield Orchestra and its audience are less than sympathetic to the works of Philip Glass: (It’s not in English, but can be understood easily).
    The program features the Springfield Orchestra playing Beethoven’s Fifth. After the opening bars, the crowd leaves. “It sounds better on my cellphone,” says series barfly Lenny. When Marge mentions that the next program features an atonal medley by Philip Glass, even the orchestra joins the fleeing hall. Facing bankruptcy, Mr. Burns buys the building and turns it into a prison.

  4. I would say when Glass talked about getting little commitment from orchestras, he hadnt yet had a relationship like he has with the Burckner Orchester Linz which has been consistent now for 13 years. Add to that the LA Phiharmonic which has done: Symphony No.3, Symphony No9, Violin Concerto No.1, scenes from Akhnaten, the Civil Wars Act V, interludes from Orphée, and the new Double Piano Concerto. Perhaps Glass hadnt yet had that kind of relationship when he said that statement.
    And I disagree that it needs to be a Glass champion to perform the work. Last winter I heard the Brown University Orchestra perform Symphony No.2 and it was excellent. I heard Symphony No.7 with the American Symphony Orchestra under James Bagwell and it was equally well performed. I think the world has caught up on a number of fronts.
    What will happen several decades from now, when Glass is not around to promote his music?
    Serge Koussevitsky said something interesting once. He said that in order to have a future you have to have a present. Glass is the preeminent composer of his generation. Arguably orchestras much prefer the work of John Adams. He gets many more performances of his orchestral works than Philip Glass. I think there are a lot of reasons for that. But if I were buying long-term stock here Id puy Glass. Hes a guy who fundamentally changed the way people hear music. He then spent 50 years cultivating a body of work. But you are right, over the long term when novelty wears off and Glasss music is standing alone in the same room as the big masters, will it be able to compete? I think that no one can really say. There are so many composers who had remarkable careers when alive, everyone from Meyerbeer to Menotti, only to be quickly pushed to the margins once they die. Anyone who says they can anticipate the tastes of the future is lying.
    When i say that he cultivated a body of work, I think its exactly that…if there are string quartets and pianists who are interested in his work, they will play it. Theres something to that kind of reenforcement in the publics mind. Add to that his whole catalogue being available through recordings and all we are doing is speaking passionately about the music and positioning it for success. Its all you can do.
    As for Glass worrying about his legacy? I think enterprises like owning his own publishing and recordcompany tell you all you need to know about how much he cares about his own work. It would have been quicker and more lucrative for him to stay with a big record company over these past 14 years. But if he were lucky, he would have gotten perhaps 20 recordings made during that time, like most other composers. The idea that OMM has done over 100 releases, which in turn inspired another 100 more of re-recordings bodes very well for the health of the catalogue.

  5. in all the talk of symphony orchestras I think you’ve missed something, something that I think comes out of Glass’ long association with theater and dance. This week the Houston Ballet Orchestra is playing movements from both The Tirol Concerto and the Double Concerto. I can’t remember the Houston Symphony ever playing Glass but the Houston Ballet has on a handful of occasions. So while the symphony orchestras may not be playing Glass, choreographers are bringing him in the back door!

  6. Indeed Marco! In fact thats clearly what Glass was thinking when he composed Heroes as a dance symphony. Not only is writing a straight symphony somewhat limiting, but by intentionally involving extra musical elements you start to participate in a much bigger world. That was always Glasss intention from the beginning by being a theater composer – the theater audience is broad based and includes everything from music lovers to dance people, architects, drama lovers…thats what I meant by limiting up above. The symphony crowd, of which I am a part, is an insular and exclusionary world.

  7. There hasn’t been any plans for a Waiting For The Barbarians opera production in the UK yet, but I hope an opera company there decides to do it soon!
    I didn’t hear Barbarians until I watched that Glass documentary by Scott Hicks.

  8. Waiting for the Barbarians was done in a semi-staged performance at the Barbican in maybe 2007. They took the costumes and set elements from the Erfurt production and used them, when they were done they were thrown out/destroyed. Too bad, I loved that production but it went from Erfurt, to Amsterdam, to Austin Texas, to London.
    To me, Waiting for the Barbarians is one of Glasss best operas. Its a straight narrative like his Kafka operas, and thats a very rare thing in his catalogue of theater works. As such, youd think it would be done more often, especially since the music is so wonderful.

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