Enough composers – Beethoven, Mahler and, if you ignore the small print, Dvorak, Schubert, Bruckner and Vaughan Williams – have died before completing their 10th symphonies for people to talk of the “curse of the ninth”. So it bodes well for superstitious admirers of Philip Glass that the American minimalist has made it to his 10th. Just to be on the safe side, Glass has admitted that he made a point of finishing it before the premiere of his ninth last January.
American conductor Dennis Russell Davies, who has worked with Glass for more than three decades, is credited with persuading the composer to write his first symphony in 1992. Since 2011, he has been artistic director of the Orchestre Français des Jeunes, France’s national youth orchestra, which commissioned the new symphony for its 30th anniversary concert on Friday. With Glass having turned 75 this year, the OFJ advertised the premiere as a double celebration – and the five-movement piece was indeed rather celebratory.
There were enough typical Glass elements – repeated arpeggios, chugging chords, cross-rhythms and pared-down harmony – for the 35-minute piece to win no new converts. But there was also a cool, fresh energy about it, arising as much, perhaps, from the jeunesse of the players and the sleek, modern hall (only five years old), as from the fact that Glass must have had a youth orchestra – this youth orchestra – in mind when he wrote it.
Less challenging than his Eighth and Ninth, the new piece has echoes of the far more approachable First and Fourth Symphonies (based on David Bowie’s Heroes and Low albums), as well as some of Glass’s earlier film scores. The first movement was jaunty and somewhat bluesy, the brass section prominent against a backdrop of percussion – snare rim shots, woodblock, marimba, tambourine. At the end, a four-to-the-floor bass drum (you can imagine the club remix) set the groove for the hundred-strong orchestra, with strings frantically playing descending chromatic scales before it ended abruptly.
The second movement was more obviously signature Glass, an ominous waltz that grew to a bell-heavy climax, suggestive of a tea dance on a slowly sinking cruise liner. Another percussion-heavy waltz followed, this time with Asian inflections, exacerbated by a pulsing drone effect from the cellos and basses. The pretty fourth movement, all flutes, marimba and trumpets, provided a tender respite before the final movement, when the crowd-pleasing bass drum reappeared. Judging by the standing ovation and screams that greeted Glass’s appearance on stage at the end, the house was suitably rocked.
After the interval, the OFJ went native, with Ravel’s La Valse and Saint-Saëns’ second violin concerto; 28-year-old Fanny Clamagirand was the soloist, playing with delicate force.