By Richard S. Ginell
LOS ANGELES – We cannot say that we weren’t warned.
In a talk before the world premiere on Jan. 10 of Philip Glass’ Symphony No. 12 (Lodger) by the Los Angeles Philharmonic at Walt Disney Concert Hall, conductor John Adams let it slip that “this will be one of Glass’ more controversial and provocative works.” Not only that, Adams prefaced the Glass premiere with one of his own more controversial and provocative works, Grand Pianola Music. As we have seen many times, Adams seems to thrive by dancing on the edge, cutting or otherwise.
Well, more than three decades removed from its tumultuous launch, Grand Pianola Music doesn’t provoke even a ripple of controversy. But the new Glass piece, the long-awaited third panel of Glass’ trilogy of symphonies based on three albums by the late rock star David Bowie, will raise hackles. At least it did with me.
Retreating from the glitz and debauchery of the rock world in the 1970s, Bowie moved to West Berlin and collaborated with singer/keyboardist/experimentalist Brian Eno on the albums Low, Heroes, and Lodger. The first two incorporated moody, introspective, mesmerizing electronic pieces influenced by the German synth band Kraftwerk. Open-minded classical folk were drawn in. Glass, whose brooding, evolving language wasn’t far removed from what Bowie and Eno were doing, was especially intrigued.
With his usual diligence and work ethic, Glass produced first a Low Symphony (Symphony No. 1) in 1992 and then a Heroes Symphony (Symphony No. 4) in 1996, taking themes from the Bowie albums – Low more so than Heroes – and developing them into Glass rhapsodies. The Heroes Symphony is the more successful of the two (Bowie reportedly thought so himself), sporting a lighter balletic texture and fewer Glass clichés, while the Low Symphony works best, ironically, when it hews close to the Bowie/Eno recordings.
Lodger stubbornly resisted transformation for years, and that’s not a surprise. It was the only out-and-out rock album of the three, lacking instrumental tracks, with Eno present in just six of the 10 selections. Glass couldn’t get a grip on it, for he claimed it lacked melodic themes that could serve as launching pads (it does have themes, but they don’t grab the ear as readily as those of Low and Heroes). So he ultimately decided merely to set the lyrics to his own music.
The result, a radically different piece than either of the Bowie symphonies preceding it, was a symphony in the form of a song cycle à la Das Lied von der Erde. The elliptical lyrics touch on such subjects as travel to places like Africa, Cyprus, or Kyoto; masculinity; and violence against women. Only seven of the Lodger album’s 10 songs were used, the others being saved for a future Glass work.
Alas, on a first listen, the music in this elephantine 44-minute work lets us down – massive, overly busy sonorities from a large orchestra revolve around the usual Glassian patterns, displaying little of the tremendous progress Glass has made as a symphonic composer in recent years. A pipe organ, played by James McVinnie, often dominates the sound, most effectively when forming a warm, bassy underpinning to the orchestra and least effectively when spinning circus arpeggios. I’d much rather hear the Bowie/Eno originals.
Finally, Glass made what Adams called “a shocking and amazing” decision to use Angélique Kidjo, the acclaimed singer from Benin, in the first performance. This looked tantalizing at first glance.
To get an idea of the power of Kidjo in her element, take her appearance at the 2017 Monterey Jazz Festival. She stoked the outdoor party atmosphere, alternating between salsa and Afro-pop while also making impassioned pleas for world peace. (“My weapon is my microphone!” she cried out.) Moreover, Glass is an old hand at working with world music performers from around the globe; he’s produced successful collaborations with the Gambian kora master Foday Musa Suso; the Brazilian ensemble Uakti; Ravi Shankar, of course; and Kidjo herself with the San Francisco Symphony and other orchestras in Ifé: Three Yorùbá Songs.
But at Disney Hall, the majestic Kidjo, clad in a colorful traditional West African outfit, was caught in a straitjacket of a huge symphony orchestra playing in strictly fixed pitches. Her amplified voice sounded declamatory and rigid in this context as she strained for the lower notes. You could tell five seconds after Kidjo’s first entry that something was amiss. The dignity of her bearing was intact, but I could detect only fleeting identification with the texts, most noticeably in “Boys Keep Swinging” with its sarcasm about male privilege. Given the graceful fusion of idioms in Ifé, it was disappointing that the Lodger Symphony turned out to be a mismatch of style and delivery.
Grand Pianola Music came close to causing a riot at its 1983 New York premiere; I remember seeing half the audience on its feet cheering and the other half booing. Some thought it was a mockery of minimalism, some found it trashy and vulgar, some loved its echoes of Beethoven’s Emperor Concerto wholeheartedly, and naturally, the dodecaphonic crowd hated it. But under the baton of its composer, within the acoustics of Disney Hall, played to a fare-thee-well by winds, brasses, and percussion of the LA Phil and two luxury-class pianists – Marc-André Hamelin and Orli Shaham – it sounded more gentle and open-hearted than provocative. The luminous opening floated through the room, the three female voices cooed like the sirens of Adams’ dreams. Even that notorious blunderbuss tune in the finale that got folks all hot and bothered in the 1980s now just sounds like unthreatening music, played expressively without apology.
Yet the most unalloyed triumph of the evening belonged to a protégé of Adams, Gabriella Smith (b. 1991), whose compact seascape Tumblebird Contrails was a gorgeous mass of gushing, teeming, foaming orchestral sound. Wave upon wave, seagulls crying, and other effects inspired by a day by the sea at Point Reyes in Northern California were created by violas inching up the scale in microtones, swooping trombones, brushes on snare drums, unusual string techniques, etc. First performed at the Cabrillo Festival in 2014, the piece sounds deceptively aleatoric at times, but Adams was always there setting the pulse.
Disney Hall looked full that night – and no wonder. With fans of Bowie, Kidjo, Glass, and Adams converging, not to mention the usual subscribers, the Phil was bound to fill the seats.
Richard S. Ginell writes regularly about music for the Los Angeles Times, and is the Los Angeles correspondent for American Record Guide and the West Coast regional editor for Classical Voice North America. He also contributes to San Francisco Classical Voice and Musical America.