Monday, 7 November 2011

Glass in your Face

An entire weekend of Philip Glass is a daunting prospect. It might be his 75th anniversary, but Glass’ minimalism has a habit of repeating itself. Interludes from Bang on a Can notwithstanding, the decision to book The Smith Quartet for all five string quartets, The Scottish Ensemble for his American Seasons and the mighty Red Note for 1000 Airplanes on the Roof looked like overkill.

Fortunately, there is more diversity than a casual glance would reveal. The quartets are a revelation: Glass has an ear for a melody – something that in rare within minimalism, which tends to either prize the dynamic or experimental – and The Smith Quartet emphasis the emotional range across and within the quartets. Indeed, aside from a dull Two Pages, an early piece performed on the Sunday by BOAC which lacks the nuance of the more mature forays into repetition, Glass is revealed as a master of forms, using his distinctive trill as a motif throughout out his compositions rather than the expected trick.

One highlight is Red Note: Davis McKay's reading of the text is appropriately intense, while the orchestra, bolstered by some very 1980s’ sounding synthesizers, weave a murderous, space age magic around the story of a man who has either had a mystical revelation or gone insane. McKay might be on the verge of hysteria, but the key question – is his vision of an interconnected university madness or magic – is thrillingly left ambiguous. The video screens illustrate his adventures into inner and outer space and the soprano takes off into musical areas that recall Star Trek, utterly appropriately.

Bang On A Can, New York champions of new music, display their affinity with Glass at Tramway on Saturday: a selection of shorter work for a small ensemble reminds of Glass’ affinity with delicate textures. Their sessions of contemporary composition reveal, amongst African influenced pieces and clarinet heavy work-outs, that Thurston Moore is a composer capable of working free jazz and Velvet Underground influenced rock into something more satisfying than his increasingly predictable sessions within Sonic Youth.
The only disappointment is Eno’s Music for Airports: a good selection against 1000 Airplanes, it has been orchestrated by BOAC. Although the ensemble is tight – Red Note are pulled in, alongside the Scottish Youth Choir – Eno’s ambient albums were consciously created in the sterile atmosphere of the studio: a non-musician, his limitations are exposed in the concert hall. The vigour of live instruments meshes uncomfortably into Airport’s delicate shifts, leaving something neither chilled nor exciting. Since a similar problem occurred in the recent orchestration of his Apollo album, the difficulties seem to lie in the process itself: Eno may have shared musical interests, but he is far from a classical composer.

But Glass triumphs: BOAC have the right mix of classical technique and rock’n’roll irreverence: Red Note are always, as Nicholas Bone from Magnetic North affirmed when picking them to perform Pass the Spoon, the go-to ensemble for the cutting edge. And the finale on Saturday, Glass’ American response to The Four Seasons, was an emotional tour de force. The Scottish Ensemble kicked off that concert with a performance of Vivaldi’s ring-tone favourite that banished bad memories of Nigel Kennedy and suggested that it is part of the tradition that eventually flourished in the high romantic era. 

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