Although a prolific composer in most of the standard genres (and the innovator of a few new ones), Philip Glass didn't write a symphony until he was past 50, older even than such late symphonic starters as Brahms or Bruckner. That first one in 1993, the "Low" Symphony, was also a new invention, a symphonic metamorphosis on an iconic '70s art-rock album by David Bowie and Brian Eno.
Since then, however, symphonies have flowed extravagantly from Glass. The Second is large-scaled and more traditional. The Third is concise and harmonically intricate, written for string orchestra. The Fourth, "Heroes," based upon another Bowie-Eno album, is a sequel to the First. The Fifth is a spiritual epic and the most ambitious symphony yet by a major American composer.
So it proved a potent symbol of its rapidly mounting ambition that the Eclectic Orange Festival opened its second season at the Orange County Performing Arts Center on Friday night with that momentous Fifth Symphony. It was performed by the Pacific Symphony Orchestra, Chorale and Children's Choir, with five vocal soloists led by Carl St.Clair. Eclectic Orange was one of the sponsors of the work's commission by the Salzburg Festival, where it had a triumphant premiere last year.
Glass' new symphony, which is titled "Requiem, Bardo, Nirmanakaya," is--like most of what Glass does (and has always done)--controversial. Its scope is vast. Glass, with the help of the Very Rev. James Parks Morton and Kusumita P. Pedersen, compiled an anthology of some two-dozen sacred texts from around the world, all translated into English. The form, in 12 movements, views creation, life, death and after as a multicultural mosaic. God is little mentioned, and the Judeo-Christian tradition is treated as but one of the world's many wisdom traditions.
Those who think Glass is a fine composer will find this, I think, one of his mightiest works. Those who are troubled by Glass' ticks--such as the punched-out brass chords to trademark rhythmic patterns, the mournful minor key and modal scales, the ever-present arpeggios, the blocky (but memorable) text settings--will have much to be annoyed by over the course of nearly an hour and a quarter. Yet in Salzburg, where the taste is either for history, modern European complexity or American experiment, the astonishing applause seemed to go on forever. In the Segerstrom Hall on Friday, the response from an ideally mixed audience (which ranged from well-dressed symphony goers to casually attired youth) was not that but still a very enthusiastic standing ovation.
What makes this controversial, though, is Glass' music, which does not serve to dramatize texts or proselytize, but is more a leveling agent. In a religiously divisive world, Glass offers a radical vision in which no culture dominates. The movements progress with both somber and exciting drive. Speaking to the audience before the performance, the composer noted that a work sung throughout should be an oratorio, but he thought of it symphonically and as almost a secular work. Instead of the theater of religious conflict, this is a symphony with a single voice.
In the end, the symphony's subject is compassion, which is also the title of its eighth movement at the work's center. And in the middle of that movement, a swaying new theme runs through the orchestra that sticks in the ear like an inspired hook in a rock song and seems to be an assimilation of the symphony's many musical elements into a transcendently simple and irresistible melody. From that point on, the score has a grabbing power of tremendous force. Death, which comes in the next movement, is then viewed as something small in the larger scheme of things. The final movement, the Buddhist "Dedication of Merit," is a sublime hymn of peace, and its setting is as beautiful and profound as anything written by Glass.
All of Glass' symphonies have been intended for one conductor, Dennis Russell Davies, who remains so much their principal champion that there is yet little in the way of a performing tradition. Davies is incomparable in maintaining the impression of timelessness through a mastery of tiny, subtle control of metric flow, as can be heard in his superb new recording of the Fifth Symphony on Nonesuch.
St.Clair, on the other hand, strived for more immediate dramatic excitement. With a commendable grasp of the large-scale structure, he led an urgent performance that was often a thrill to listen to but could also seem impatient at times, especially in the salesman-like need to underline every dramatic effect and emphasize every accent. He did, however, demonstrate admirable care with his large choruses, and he made the most of his orchestra's high-energy winds and brass.
With the exception of the outstanding mezzo-soprano, Milagro Vargas, the vocal soloists were the performance's weak point. They were Kimberly Jones, John McVeigh, Andre Solomon-Glover and Andrew Wentzel.