But What What Does It It It It All Mean Mean Mean?

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NEW SEASONS: Philip Glass: Violin Concerto No. 2, The American Four Seasons; Arvo Pärt: “Estonian Lullaby”; Giya Kancheli Ex contrario; Shigeru Umebayashi: “Yumeji’s Theme.” Gidon Kremer, violin, with Liepaitės Girls’ Choir (in the Pärt) and Giedrė Dirvanauskaitė , cello, and Andrei Pushkarev, keyboards (in the Kancheli). Kremerata Baltica. Deutsche Grammophon 479 4817.

By Paul E. Robinson

DIGITAL REVIEW – Gidon Kremer has always marched to a different drummer – or no drummer at all. He could have enjoyed a major career as a solo violinist, hopping from one continent to another, playing with all the world’s top orchestras; instead, he has spent much of his time playing chamber music, encouraging contemporary composers, and working with the fine young musicians who make up Kremerata Baltica, a chamber orchestra based in Kremer’s home town of Riga, Lithuania. Very much a free spirit, his choices are sometimes surprising – even puzzling. This new album is a case in point. After reading Kremer’s own liner notes on the album title, its meaning is still not clear to me. As he explains it: “Music as seasons: they are both part of our culture, our language for describing the pulse of life. This album of ‘new seasons’ is evidence of that.”

Gidon Kremer's album 'New Seasons' feature music of Glass, Kancheli, others.
Kremer’s ‘New Seasons’: Glass, Pärt, Kancheli, Umebayashi.

My take is that he is arguing for the primacy of contemporary music, the idea that as musicians we need to be thinking beyond the endless recycling of the music we know. He also takes a stand in favor of tonal music, minimalism, and music that conveys emotion and that “can be felt by and resonate with literally everyone.”

These are big issues, and Kremer doesn’t begin adequately to explain them in his notes, but he is a violinist, not a musicologist; unfortunately, without a clear understanding of what these four pieces are trying to say or be, or how they relate to each other, the listener is apt to find this CD difficult to appreciate, except on a purely emotional level. Perhaps that is what Kremer intended, after all. Much of this CD is taken up with Philip Glass’ 42-minute Violin Concerto No. 2. The other major work is Giya Kancheli’s 30-minute piece Ex contrario. Between them is a 2-minute chorus by Arvo Pärt, and at the end, we have a 3-minute movie theme by Shigeru Umebayashi. As programming, this line-up is odd, to say the least, and the short pieces border on inconsequential.

American composer Philip Glass

For better or worse, the Glass concerto is by far the longest piece on the album. For me, this was a major drawback, even before I had heard a note. Isn’t it time that someone blew the whistle on Philip Glass? Haven’t we had enough noodling and chugging masquerading as serious music? In fact, just a few months ago, music critic Terry Teachout blew his whistle rather loudly and effectively in an article titled “Glass Half-Empty” (Commentary, April 1, 2015). Teachout suggested that some of Glass’ music seems to work well for opera and film because it is essentially background music, whereas when it comes to the foreground – as in his quartets, symphonies, and concertos – its basic emptiness becomes all too apparent. On such “foreground” pieces, Teachout did not mince words: “I have yet to hear one that struck me as anything other than excruciatingly boring.”

Glass’ Violin Concerto No. 2, The American Four Seasons, was commissioned in 2009 by Robert McDuffie, who gave the premiere performance with the Toronto Symphony later that year and recorded it several months later with Marin Alsop and the London Philharmonic (Orange Mountain Music OMM0072). While inspired by Vivaldi’s set of violin concertos known as The Four Seasons, Glass has written that he and McDuffie couldn’t agree on the specifics of the finished work. The piece opens with a Prologue and is divided into four movements with three Songs (unaccompanied cadenzas) between the movements; there is no indication of how any of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons relate to this concerto. Glass is apparently content to let the listener make the connections.

Tim Fain plays Philip GlassThe Prologue and Songs are unfailingly lyrical and sometimes quite beautiful. Glass has suggested that these unaccompanied portions of his Violin Concerto No. 2 can be played as separate pieces; in fact, this option has already been recorded for Glass’ own label Orange Mountain Music by Tim Fain (OMM0050). That performance is first-rate.

In its entirety, on the other hand, the Violin Concerto No. 2 is  far too long and too repetitive, even for a composer like Glass, whose stock-in-trade is repetition. As a composition, it is lacking in structure and variety, and as a concerto it fails to provide a genuine dialogue of any sort between the soloist and the orchestra, which functions here mainly as a rhythm section. Kremer fiddles valiantly, although even he suffers several lapses of intonation as he struggles through this thankless piece.

Giya Kancheli (Wiki)
Giya Kancheli (Wiki)

No explanation is offered for Kancheli’s Ex contrario, either. Perhaps it has no meaning. Even more insufferable than the Glass, it too is a minimalist piece, albeit without that composer’s typical “chugging.” The opening starts slowly and seems to get bogged down in its own stasis; I listened to it a number of times, yet the sheer pointlessness of it all led me to turn it off after a few minutes.

It could be that there is a market for this kind of music. After all, the current No. 1 best-selling classical CD is The Monks of Norcia (Decca B0023153-02). Many consumers must find value in CDs that provide inoffensive background music.

Perhaps Terry Teachout and I are being too critical of the music of composers like Glass. Perhaps we miss the point when we classify their works as foreground music of questionable merit when what they are actually providing is background music that meets the needs of a remarkably large number of people.

Paul E. Robinson is a Canadian conductor and broadcaster and the author of four books on conductors. He writes regularly about music for www.theartoftheconductor.com, www.musicaltoronto.org, and www.scena.org.